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Australia's Oceans - New Horizons: Supporting Policy Statement

Commonwealth of Australia 1997


The place of the ocean in the lives of all Australians

For Australians, the oceans, seas and coasts of our island continent hold a special place in our hearts, our histories and our future. The majority of our population and our major cities are coastal, reflecting our heritage and the imperatives of trade and transport. The ocean remains a part of Australia's lifeblood today as we ship our goods and commodities to all parts of the globe. The oceans and seas provide a basis for Australian industries totalling approximately $30 billion each year including shipping, offshore oil and gas, marine tourism, fisheries and shipbuilding.

The Coalition has a proud record of achievement in protecting and managing our ocean and coastal resources. For example, in 1978 the Coalition government halted whaling in Australian waters, and by 1980 whales were protected by law. In 1982 the Coalition government placed the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park on the World Heritage List. The Offshore Constitutional Settlement of 1979, which began the process of creating a workable relationship between the Commonwealth and the States and Territories to manage coastal waters, was negotiated by the Coalition government.

Looking to the future, we know that the oceans, while they will always be there, will not continue to serve our resource or environmental needs unless they are managed within a sensible framework, with due regard to conservation and sustainable resource use. Over the last decade, numerous reports have called for an integrated approach to decision making for marine resources across Commonwealth, State, Territory and local spheres of government. Such an approach will minimise conflict over the use of our oceans and provide certainty both for industry investment and for the long term protection of the marine environment. With the Coasts and Clean Seas Initiative under the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia and with the development of the Australian Oceans Policy, the Howard government will write a new chapter in the history of Australian oceans management. The Coalition will now move progressively to implement an integrated strategy for our oceans.

An Australian oceans policy

The government will take the lead in developing the Australian Oceans Policy, but an effective oceans policy must be shaped by the nation as a whole. The Australian Oceans Policy will be the result of careful consultation, sharing ideas with governments, the community, industry and other resource users on how to ensure the sustainable development, planning and management of these vast natural assets. Putting the Policy into action requires partnerships between all spheres of government, the private sector, and the scientific and wider communities. The Australian Oceans Policy will, like our marine resources, be owned by all Australians.

Australia's Oceans Policy will give us an integrated and strategic platform for the better planning and management of our oceans.The Oceans Policy will provide us with a basis for identifying opportunities and promoting economic development of our marine resources. The Policy will provide us with the means to conserve the natural environment of our oceans and develop the industries and communities they support, as well as address the myriad dangers confronting the long term future of our oceans.

By way of example, the Oceans Policy will address important issues such as:

The government is now starting consultations with the community, State and Territory governments and other major stakeholders for their views on the Oceans Policy. A consultation paper is being released now for comment. Following this first stage of consultations further public comment will be sought during 1997 and it is expected that the Oceans Policy will be finalised for the commencement of the International Year of the Oceans in 1998. The government will progressively announce important policy directions on issues arising through the development of the Oceans Policy during the course of the year.

Sound environmental management

From the Torres Strait to Antarctica, Australian seas and oceans are part of the world's great oceans and ecosystems. Neither migratory fish nor waterborne pollutants respect international marine boundaries. The physical and biological wealth of our oceans must be protected and, as an island nation and one of over 100 parties to the Law of the Sea Convention, Australia has a part to play. We have a responsibility to take appropriate measures necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution in the marine environment.

Australia has a strong base in marine resource and environmental management which is in demand around the world. Increasing Australia's marine management skills is important both to meet Australia's direct needs and to increase the commercial export of marine management services.

Over 80% of marine pollution affecting our seas and oceans originates on land. That is why we need an integrated policy approach to our coastal areas, seas and oceans if we are to minimise ocean pollution. Through the Coasts and Clean Seas Initiative under the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia, $100 million will be provided over four years to help protect the natural capital of our coasts. The activities of the Heritage Trust will be supported by other government programmes and initiatives. For example, funding will go to community approaches for improving the health of marine and estuarine habitat and coastal zones, industry and government support will improve the treatment and management of ballast water and support will be provided to address the problem of land based sources of marine pollution.

Protection from pollution is only part of the work to be done. An integrated policy response must also protect our ocean life from depletion so its magnificent diversity will be there for coming generations. The threats from aquatic pests and disease entering Australia should be minimised and fish health protected. Finally, we must give all Australians the opportunity to learn about the waters that surround our country so that we can all appreciate the importance and opportunities that our oceans offer.

The Australian Oceans Policy will be underpinned by such an appreciation and will provide for practical, sensible, and above all, sustainable management of our waters. It will be the framework for maintaining the quality of marine and coastal waters and habitats as nursery grounds for the oceans' living resources. Where significant ocean species are threatened, either through environmental change, stock or habitat loss, the Oceans Policy will provide a strategic basis for their protection and recovery.


Despite having the third largest Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) in the world Australia is a minor player in terms of overall fish catch, not even ranking in the world's top fifty fishing nations. This is largely because our waters are generally less productive than most, which means we must be particularly careful in ensuring that fishing yields are sustainable.

Nonetheless, fishing is of considerable economic significance. Commercial fishing is valued at around $1.6 billion per year and employs some 25,000 people directly. The government recognises the importance and scale of recreational fishing, with a large proportion of the population fishing for pleasure every year.

There are many pressures on our fish resources. We must manage them carefully and meet our obligations to protect and manage our fish resources in remote areas. We must not fish out our stocks or irreparably damage their habitat. To meet the growing need for fish we also must make better use of the fish we do catch. For the longer term it is important to encourage environmentally responsible entrepreneurs in our fisheries and in the "blue revolution" of aquaculture. The Australian Oceans Policy will encompass these issues and promote effective institutional arrangements for the management of our oceans and marine resources, both within Australia and with our neighbours. The Oceans Policy will cover issues such as the reduction of by-catch, management of the marine environment and steps to promote the growth in value of Australia's fisheries, including through improved fisheries management, monitoring, control and surveillance of remote areas of the EEZ and beyond.

International roles and responsibilities

The oceans link us with other nations, providing a connection with our neighbours in areas such as shipping, fishing, resource exploration, naval activity, environmental protection and pollution prevention. While sea boundaries exist only on maps, they define many of our rights and obligations under international law. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea entered into force in 1994 and Australia declared an EEZ of some 11 million square kilometres. Our responsibilities cover almost 15 million square kilometres when our claimable continental shelf is determined. This total is nearly twice the size of the Australian landmass.

Within our EEZ, Australia has first access to living marine resources, but we have corresponding obligations to protect and sustainably manage these resources, using the best available scientific information. If we are not able to fully use and develop the living marine resources within the EEZ, we must allow others to take the opportunity, subject to certain conditions. In short, we either conserve and use our marine living resources, or lose them.

Our neighbours, especially in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific, share the oceans of the region with us. Australia's marine domain is just a part of the interconnected world oceans that cover nearly three-quarters of the planet. We have national, regional and global responsibilities to work peacefully and cooperatively with our neighbours to manage the oceans for the benefit of all. But more than this, it is simply not possible to achieve effective management of these resources in isolation. The waters and fish of the region do not recognise national boundaries. There is no alternative to working cooperatively with other nations if we are to sustain our marine and coastal environments for future generations and Australia will continue to play an active role in regional fisheries organisations.

The development of an agreement with Indonesia on the demarcation of our marine boundaries is another example of how we will work through our regional responsibilities and shows the maturity of this vital relationship. The Australian Oceans Policy will guide us to continued practical and mutually beneficial cooperation across our seas.

Cooperation is particularly important for the region's small island states. The fishing industry is an important part the region's economic outlook and its long term viability must be protected. Management of fisheries resources to ensure their sustainability and an appropriate return to Pacific island countries is therefore essential to both the environmental and economic future of the region. Placing more resources and greater emphasis on South Pacific management is needed to achieve these goals. Good coastal zone management is also necessary to the sustainable development of these small island nations. To this end, we support national and regional efforts in these areas.

Conservation of marine biological diversity

Our coasts, seas and oceans contain an enormous variety of marine plants and animals, in habitats that range from tropical to antarctic. Use of these resources must be ecologically sustainable if we are to conserve the biodiversity and long term security of our marine environment. Our drive for essential economic development and employment creation will take place without foreclosing important options for the Australia of the future. Irresponsible exploitation of resources now will only give us crippled industry and unemployment in the future. Specific conservation measures will need to be put in place where necessary, such as developing a national representative system of marine protected areas and management plans for endangered species or ecological systems. These should complement new approaches to sustainable multiple resource use to be developed in cooperation with industry, governments and other interested community sectors. Sensible resource use and environmental protection can co-exist. The Oceans Policy will develop recommendations to implement this new regime.

Oil and gas resource industries

Australian oceans make a major contribution to export earnings. Our marine industries are estimated as contributing around 8% of GNP, and of this, roughly $6 billion is gross export income.

The Australian offshore oil and gas industry currently contributes around $8 billion each year to the economy and will be a major domestic energy source into the first half of the 21st century. Further, Australia will be aiming to export more than 20 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas within the next 10-15 years, worth some $4 billion annually. Every Australian benefits from this production, through the wealth and jobs created directly and through the industry's community contributions via taxation. The offshore oil and gas industry has been particularly conscious of ecological sustainability objectives. Oil and gas are not renewable resources and to maintain self-sufficiency we must continue to discover and develop new fields. The economic importance of hydrocarbon exploration and development will be recognised in the Australian Oceans Policy.


Australians are well aware of how important our coasts and adjacent waters are for tourism and recreation. The Australian beach is one of our best known images overseas. The Great Barrier Reef is one of the world's great tourist destinations. Our coasts and oceans are generally a major attraction for international and domestic travellers, who contribute some $15 billion each year to our economy. Tourism provides opportunities for our businesses and creates considerable regional employment. The industry should have an equal chance to grow alongside other uses of our environment and resource use decisions must recognise its importance. Future coastal development needs to be sustainable and the management of tourism must maintain and value its assets. The Australian Oceans Policy is an important framework within which our tourism industry can make the most of new opportunities without environmental degradation.

Shipping and transport

Shipping patterns through the Pacific, South East Asia and the Indian Ocean were laid down in ancient regional and global trade routes, which included the Australian continent. Modern nations plying the seas face modern issues, such as port development, sea communication, ship-generated pollution and safety at sea. We have to reduce pollution from ships and minimise the introduction of marine pests and diseases through ballast water. Our Australian Oceans Policy will provide a basis for action on these issues, both with the Australian community and industry, and with our neighbours. The Oceans Policy will allow us to consolidate and adopt a strategic approach to Australia's international actions on environmental, safety and shipping standards issues through forums such as the International Maritime Organisation. The management and treatment of ballast water will be improved under the Oceans Policy to reduce the risk to our environment. The Oceans Policy will provide a framework to assess and promote the export of industry skills and technological expertise.

Shipping is vital to the Australian economy. As an island nation, more than 95% of our traded goods are carried by sea. In world terms, Australia is the fifth largest user of shipping. Only a relatively small share of this trade is carried by Australian owned ships. Nevertheless, the Australian shipping industry has a turnover in excess of $1.2 billion annually and employs nearly 5,000 people.

Australia is an advanced shipping nation with a reputation for clean, safe and technologically advanced ships. Maritime training in Australia is of world standard. In addition to its significant export potential, training can be used to improve maritime safety and marine environment protection in the region.

New and emerging technologies

Most Australians understand the great contribution the major marine industries, such as fishing, petroleum and tourism, make to the Australian economy. Less well understood are the opportunities that scientific research and technological innovation can open up in emerging marine industries such as aquaculture, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

Australia's oceans and marine resources will be the source of new prescription drugs and industrial chemicals. Our southern oceans and their organisms are not well understood and could hold valuable chemical resources. In the long term, scientists speculate that ocean thermal or tidal energy could be tapped as clean power. With practical policy support for science, our oceans will be a frontier for innovation which can help expand our economic base, creating new employment opportunities for generations of Australians to come.

To meet our election commitment, a Marine Science and Technology Plan is being developed by the Minister for Industry, Science and Tourism. This will take place within the framework of the Australian Oceans Policy.


The issues raised in the Australian Oceans Policy consultation paper reach to the heart of our shared concern for our marine environment. The development of the Policy will enable Australians from all walks of life to be heard on how we should best use, conserve and protect our oceans. It will draw on the Marine Industry Development Strategy and will be supported by the Marine Science and Technology Plan that is also under development.

In line with the vision of the Australian Oceans Policy consultation paper, the government now announces a set of specific projects for immediate implementation. Some of these initiatives will be funded by the Natural Heritage Trust of Australia. Through the Natural Heritage Trust and the Coasts and Clean Seas Initiative the government has demonstrated its clear commitment to the sustainable development of our marine environment. We now look to the Australian community for its partnership and its views.