Bill McCormick, Science, Technology, Environment and Resources

Key issue 
Over the coming years Australian governments are likely to face increasing challenges in balancing conflicting interests when managing marine resources.

Australia has a vast marine jurisdiction—the third largest in the world—with an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) covering 8.2 million square kilometres. The economic and conservation value of this zone is considerable, as it contains oil and gas fields, fisheries and shipping lanes.

There is a need to achieve sustainable resource use and conservation of natural systems, but also increasing potential for one group of users to create adverse impacts for others.

Enforcement: There is a challenge to effectively enforcing our jurisdiction across these large ocean territories through operations covering national security, customs, quarantine, border control and search and rescue.

Jurisdictional complexity: Maritime boundaries are complex. Australian territorial sea runs from low water mark out to 12 nautical miles(NM)—a nautical mile is 1.85 kilometres.

The Offshore Constitutional Settlement (OCS) sets out arrangements between the different Australian jurisdictions regarding responsibilities for fisheries, mining, shipping and marine reserves. The first three NM from the shore (coastal waters) are part of the relevant state or territory. Usually, management of the coastal waters and ownership or development of resources therein is a state/territory matter. From three to 12 NM, they belong to the Commonwealth.

The EEZ extends up to 200 NM from the coast of any Australian land (including islands). Australia also has certain rights over an additional 2.5 million square kilometres of seabed beyond the limits of its EEZ under the Continental Shelf regime.


Fishing is an important industry, with the 2010–11 catch of wild-caught fisheries valued at $1.3 billion.

Under the OCS arrangements for fisheries, the states and the Northern Territory generally manage coastal species. The Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) manages deepwater or migratory species within the Australian Fishing Zone, which covers the area of the EEZ outside coastal waters. While managing Commonwealth fisheries, AFMA shares its compliance functions with other agencies and state/NT fisheries officers.

Illegal, Unregulated and Unreported (IUU) fishing is an issue in some waters of northern Australia and the Southern Ocean. In the north, illegal fishers come principally from Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, motivated by poverty and the fact that Indonesian fisheries are already under intense pressure. Coastwatch co-ordinates the surveillance and response to illegal foreign fishing by the Australian Defence Force (Operation RESOLUTE) and Customs.-

The fishery in the EEZ off Heard Island and McDonald Islands (HIMI) in the Southern Ocean targets Patagonian toothfish and mackerel icefish, and is governed under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. From the late 1990s, IUU fishing for Patagonian toothfish in the Southern Ocean increased dramatically, driven by industrial scale fishing involving boats flying flags of convenience . Supported by a treaty, increased Australian and French patrols in the relevant parts of their EEZs significantly reduced IUU fishing.

The Southern Ocean Maritime Patrol and Response Program, along with AFMA and the ADF, provides surveillance and apprehension of vessels operating illegally in the Southern Ocean.

Whaling in the Southern Ocean

Australia has opposed commercial whaling consistently since 1980. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared a moratorium on commercial whaling, but issued permits to Japan for ‘scientific whaling’ in the Southern Ocean, under Article VIII of the Whaling Convention.

Anti-whaling countries argue that ‘scientific whaling’ is in fact commercial whaling in all but name. In 2007, the IWC passed a non-binding resolution asking Japan to halt scientific whaling in the Southern Ocean after the IWC Scientific Committee found that the current research goals were neither critical nor requiring lethal measures.

In 2010, Australia initiated proceedings against Japan in the International Court of Justice, citing breaches of the Whaling Convention, including ‘scientific’ whaling without reference to conservation and management of whale populations and hunting fin and humpback whales within the Southern Ocean Sanctuary. The case was heard in 2013 and a decision is pending.

Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network

The creation of a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, as part of Regional Marine Plans, originated as a component of Australia’s 1998 Oceans Policy. The reserves are located in Commonwealth waters (i.e. more than three NM offshore).The south-east Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network Management Plan came into force on 1 July 2013, and plans for the other regions, plus the Coral Sea, are scheduled to come into effect on 1 July 2014. The network includes examples of all of Australia's different marine ecosystems and habitats. The sustainable use of natural resources is allowed in some parts if consistent with the primary objective of conservation.

Commonwealth Marine Reserve Networks

Commonwealth Marine Reserve Networks

Recreational fishing is permitted in four of the six zones, which cover large portions of the marine reserves. However, many fishers are opposed to loss of access to fishing grounds.

A Fisheries Adjustment Assistance Package worth around $100 million was announced in 2012 to help communities and industries affected by the proposed network of marine reserves.

The Coalition policy on fisheries is to suspend and review the management plans for the reserves.

Further reading

B. McCormick, ‘New Marine Reserve Proposals’, FlagPost weblog, 18 June 2012.

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