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Our Blue Estate

Over the coming issues, we'll take a deep dive into Australia's magnificent Marine Parks, and see what makes their waters so special.

Australia has one of the largest maritime jurisdictions in the world, with sovereign rights over 10 million square kilometres of ocean embraced by an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) that reaches 200 nautical miles (370km) from the shore.

The EEZ stretches across 40 degrees of latitude, from the warm tropical Arafura Sea north of Darwin to the near-subpolar reaches of the Southern Ocean below Tasmania. Off our east coast, ocean currents blend our territorial waters with the Pacific Ocean, while the sea off Western Australia merges in the great expanse of the Indian Ocean. As well as spanning wide arcs of the globe, Australian waters vary greatly in depth, from very shallow inshore waters to open ocean plunging more than four kilometres to a seafloor sculpted in basins, seamounts and submarine canyons.

This vast and varied ‘blue estate’ contains a huge array of habitats and ecosystems, in which thrive some of the most diverse, unique and spectacular marine life on the planet. This extraordinary array of species includes marine mammals and reptiles, more than 4000 species of fish and many thousands of invertebrates, plants and micro-organisms. All major groups of marine organisms are represented in Australian waters and many species are found nowhere else. 

Exclusive sovereignty over these oceanic domains carries with it special responsibility for their conservation and management, a stewardship that successive Australian Governments on both sides of politics have taken very much to heart. In November 2012, Australia made history by declaring the world’s largest network of marine parks — the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA) — covering more than 3.3 million square kilometres across six regions around our coastline. 

This was achieved through decades of scientific analysis, years of consultation with industry stakeholders and affected communities, and bipartisan cooperation at all levels of government. It was initiated under the Howard Government in the early 1990s and finalised by the Gillard Government in 2013. Here’s how the story unfolded. 


Consistent with international law, the Commonwealth Government enacted the Seas and Submerged Lands Act 1973, under which it declared a range of maritime zones and claimed control over the then 3nm territorial sea. In the wake of the States’ unsuccessful High Court challenge to the Commonwealth’s claim, the parties negotiated a series of arrangements collectively known as the Offshore Constitutional Settlement (OCS). 

Under the OCS, the Commonwealth has sole jurisdiction from the outer edge of the EEZ to 3nm from the coastal baseline. The inshore 3nm zone falls within the primary jurisdiction of State and Territory governments. Local governments also play a significant role in the planning and management of the coasts and marine park areas (MPAs) in coastal waters. Cross-jurisdictional cooperation was therefore an essential element in the development of the NRSMPA, and still underpins its ongoing management.


In 1991, the Commonwealth Government initiated a long-term conservation program to protect Australia’s marine environments. A key component of this initiative was a commitment to augment existing marine reserves through the establishment of a national system of ‘marine protected areas’ — defined as “areas of sea specially dedicated to the protection and maintenance of biodiversity, and of natural and associated cultural resources, and managed through legal or other effective means.” 

The policy foundation for this initiative was the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (1992), which promoted “using, conserving and enhancing the community’s resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased.” Implicit in the policy was recognition of the interconnectivity of oceanic systems, allowing for the marine environment to be understood and planned on an ecosystem basis, rather than be confined within artificial administrative boundaries that were applied up to that time.

Following Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity — a commitment to global action on conservation — the Commonwealth, State, Territory and local governments made the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment (1992) to facilitate a cooperative national approach to managing the environment. The National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia’s Biological Diversity (1996) committed all Australian governments to establish a comprehensive, adequate and representative system for the management of Australia’s terrestrial and marine environments.

The Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC) was adopted as the appropriate forum for achieving this national objective and it, in turn, established a special Task Force to coordinate the development of the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas.

Launched by the Commonwealth Government in December 1998 (the International Year of the Ocean), ‘Australia’s Oceans Policy’ articulated the framework for integrated and ecosystem-based planning and management of all of Australia’s marine jurisdictions through the NRSMPA. A key element of the Policy was a three-year, $50 million program for the development of Regional Marine Plans based on large, ecologically similar ‘provinces’ defined through analysis of scientific data. 


The legal foundation for this policy framework was, and remains, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act), Australia’s primary environmental legislation. Among its many objects, the EPBC Act aims to protect nationally significant environments, including Australian marine parks, which are administered and managed by the Director of National Parks, supported by Parks Australia.

When a marine park is proclaimed under the Act, the Director is required to prepare a park management plan which, after approval by the relevant minister, has effect for ten years. Management plans seek to strike a balance between protection of the marine environment and opportunities for sustainable use and enjoyment of the natural resources within the park. They do this by dividing the reserve into zones which are assigned a category of protection promulgated by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), ranging from highly protected areas to sustainable multiple-use areas accommodating a wide spectrum of human activities.


Other Australian, state and territory government agencies also have statutory roles in managing various aspects of the marine environment, such as shipping, oil and gas activities, pollution and biosecurity threats, fisheries and tourism. These include the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, Australian Maritime Safety Authority, Defence, Geosciences Australia, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Australian Border Force and the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority. State fisheries, marine park agencies and research institutions also support the day-to-day management of marine parks around Australia.


Implementation of the Oceans Policy began with the ANZECC Task Force formulating guidelines to assist government agencies in the development of “a system of marine protected areas to contribute to the long-term ecological viability of marine and estuarine systems, to maintain ecological processes and systems, and to protect Australia’s biological diversity at all levels.”

The Guidelines required that MPAs should satisfy three essential criteria: Comprehensiveness, the full range of ecosystems recognised at an appropriate scale within and across each bioregion; Adequacy, appropriate size and configuration to ensure the conservation of biodiversity and integrity of ecological processes; and Representativeness, reasonably reflecting the marine life and habitats of the area they are chosen to represent.

The identification of areas suitable for inclusion in the NRMSPA was also guided by goals to ensure that all types of ‘provincial bioregions’ (large-scale ecosystems across a range of depths and bathymetric features) could be represented within the national network. Additionally, a number of supporting principles were articulated to guide the location, selection, design (shape and size), zoning (level of protection and use) of the reserves, and the assessment of socio-economic impact on affected communities.


Within this theoretical framework, marine scientists and research agencies performed the painstaking task of sifting the best available data to identify and map potential bioregions for inclusion in the NRSMPA. The first stage of the process involved developing a profile of each region describing its key physical and biological attributes, habitats and ecosystem characteristics, current and emerging threats, economic resources, heritage values, community and sectoral interests.

Over time, this process evolved into the Marine Bioregional Planning Programme, covering Commonwealth waters and consolidating two sets of core data: the Interim Marine and Coastal Regionalisation for Australia (IMCRA) for areas on the continental shelf to the 200-metre isobath; and the National Marine Bioregionalisation (NMB) for the deepwater areas to the edge of the EEZ, excluding Antarctica and Heard and Macdonald Islands. Both contain a benthic (deep sea) component based on biogeography of fish species supplemented with a geophysical classification; and a pelagic (open ocean) component based on oceanographic characteristics of water bodies. The combined product, dubbed IMCRA v4.0.9, was endorsed in April 2006 and formed the scientific basis for the future development of the NRSMPA. 


The South-east Marine Region, embracing the waters off Victoria, Tasmania, southern New South Wales and eastern South Australia (about 15 per cent of the national coastline), was selected as the prototype for application of this planning method, resulting in 14 Commonwealth Marine Reserves being proclaimed in that Region in 2007. Following this proclamation, proposals were developed for CMRs in the South-west, North, North-west, Coral Sea and Temperate East Marine Regions, focused initially on their boundaries and internal zoning. 

Public feedback was sought on the proposals between May 2011 and February 2012, which attracted over half a million submissions and nearly 2000 attendees at 245 meetings across the country. Simultaneously, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) assessed the social and economic implications of each draft proposal on the commercial fishing industry and the potential impacts on related communities. The feedback and impact report were considered by the Government in refining the proposals for each region and the final CMR network was announced on 14 June 2012.

In November 2012, forty new Commonwealth marine reserves were proclaimed across five large marine regions as part of the Australian Government’s contribution to the NRSMPA, complementing the network established in the South-east in 2007.

Management plans for these new reserves were drafted following their proclamation, but were set aside in December 2013 pending an independent review initiated by the Australian Government to ensure that internal zoning and management arrangements were appropriate and were informed by the best available science.

The CMR Review began in August 2014 and was conducted by two parallel, interrelated processes. An Expert Scientific Panel (ESP) was tasked with reviewing the science supporting the CMRs and proposed zoning, and recommending future research and monitoring priorities, including ways to address the most significant information gaps in the knowledge base. In December 2015, the ESP reported its findings, including that the IMCRA process was a sound basis for designing the CMRs and that the resulting NRSMPA was a credible outcome on the available science.

Concurrently, a Bioregional Advisory Panel (BAP) was established for each of the five marine regions under review to facilitate consultation with stakeholders and interested parties, identify areas of contention and make recommendations for improvement of the proposed zoning arrangements. An online survey generated 1,859 responses, and 13,124 written submissions were received, during the four months up to 31 March 2015. Between February and August 2015, 265 meetings, forums and teleconferences were held around the country with peak organisations, representatives of relevant business and environmental groups, government agencies and other interested parties. Drawing on these inputs, the BAPs recommended zoning and boundary changes to 26 of the 40 new reserves declared in 2012.


Since 2012, the total number of Commonwealth Marine Reserves has been increased to 58 across the six main planning regions — eight in the North, 13 in the North-west, 14 in the South-west, 14 in the South-east, eight in the Temperate East, and the Coral Sea (including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park) — about 36 per cent of our oceans within the EEZ. In addition, the States and the Northern Territory have established marine parks in their own jurisdictions, within 3nm from the coast — New South Wales (6), Queensland (3), Victoria (12), Tasmania (7), South Australia (19), Western Australia (16) and Northern Territory (1). Collectively, this National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas goes a long way to preserving these precious marine environments, not only for the use and enjoyment of current generations but also for those to come.

[In future issues, Trade-a-Boat will circumnavigate Australia exploring the Commonwealth Marine Areas and revealing their relationship with some of the inshore marine parks maintained by the States and the Northern Territory.]