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Oceans Facts and Figures

A report commissioned by Environment Australia October 1997

Commonwealth of Australia
ISBN 0 642 54548 0

3. Ocean resources


Australia has the third largest fishing zone in the world covering an area of about 9 million square kilometres. The commercial fishing industry is the nation's fifth largest primary industry with a value of $1.6 billion each year. Australia's catches are relatively small by world standards and a number of the fisheries are fully exploited or over-exploited. About 200 species of fish, 60 species of crustacean, 30 species of molluscs and a few echinoderm species are taken commercially.

Of the main 100 species or groups fished nine are considered to be overfished, 23 are fully or heavily fished, nine are underfished and 59 are of unknown status. The total catch is over 200 000 tonnes with an additional 15 000 tonnes taken by licensed foreign boats. These figures do not take into account a substantial quantity of discarded by-catch which, in some fisheries, can represent a large proportion of what is taken. Measures are currently being undertaken in cooperation with industry to address this issue.

The total catch in Australian waters is only a small fraction of the catch taken in other fishing nations. Australia's low volume of commercial fisheries is due to the general low productivity of our waters due to limited nutrients and a relatively small continental shelf. However, the low volume produced has a high unit value as much of the catch includes valuable products, such as, rock lobster, prawns, abalone, pearl and oysters.

The catch of Australia's fisheries is not expected to expand greatly, though some potential exists for development of new fisheries and increased production from existing ones. While the major finds of orange roughy buoyed total production in the late 1980s, there has been a decline in some commercial species, such as southern sharks, gemfish and rock lobsters. Reasons for the declines are thought to include overfishing, loss of habitat and pollution. Catch limits for deep-sea orange roughy have been markedly reduced in recent years.

Development of new fisheries in a sustainable fashion will require further research and substantial capital investment. In general, research is needed to improve assessment of new offshore resources and to ensure the sustainability of current stocks and the marine environment that supports them. This will involve collection of data, new systems to reduce by-catch including birds and non-fish species the avoidance of sea floor damage from bottom trawling, improvement of management and consultation processes, and reducing the impact of marine pests. Australia can also improve the situation of its fisheries as improved management measures begin to take effect in over-exploited areas. The value of the catch will increase through improved handling, value adding and development of niche markets.

Fisheries management is extremely complex and is increasingly required to take a whole ecosystem approach. Management of marine ecosystems, including fishery resources, requires greater involvement in issues such as coastal development, conservation of fish habitat and effects on other species. It also requires important, wider environmental issues to be addressed, such as land-based sources of marine pollution.

Access for commercial fishing within Marine Protected Areas has been a major issue since the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Pursuit of marine conservation objectives and continued commercial fishing operations are not necessarily incompatible. Prawn trawling is now prohibited in 79 per cent of the Park, commercial reef fishing is prohibited in 5 per cent of the Park and restricted in other areas. The importance of MPAs as fisheries refugia has not been widely argued in Australia, although closed areas and seasons have long been important tools of fisheries management. The access available for fishing operations depends on the nature of those operations and the purpose for which the MPA has been established.


The farming of freshwater and marine species, known as aquaculture, enjoyed a major boom in Australia in the mid 1980s. What was a production of less than $50 million a year grew to around $237.5 million by the early 1990s with annual production of 14 300 tonnes. There are now more than 4400 aquaculture farms in Australia, most of which are in New South Wales. Around 60 species of organisms from algae and aquarium fish, to crocodiles and freshwater crayfish, are now being cultured.

Australia's aquaculture is largely based on small volumes of relatively high value products for local and overseas markets. Elsewhere in the world, and particularly in Asia, which accounts for 85 per cent of world production, it is based on low cost, large volume. Aquaculture does not face the same problems as wild fisheries in terms of natural limits to the volume of production, although inputs, such as nutrients and chemicals, can limit the extent of production. Also, growth is limited through availability of suitable sites for aquaculture operations. This applies to both intensive pond aquaculture on land, and cage aquaculture in natural waterways.

Industry growth will also depend on technological advancement, for example, in husbandry practices, disease management, waste management and water recycling, and alternative feeds that reduce the use of fish meal. Aquaculture is seen to be a regenerative rather than an exploitative use of the coastal environment, and some of the positive consequences include the production of juveniles of over exploited species, to be used for restocking, and reduced pressures on wild stock.

Impacts from aquaculture include increased demand for coastal land for aquaculture farms and the impacts of wastes from intensive cultivation on land and at sea which induce eutrophication. Aquaculture can also be associated with unsightly rafts, cages and other equipment which reduce aesthetic values. The planning framework for development of Australia's aquaculture industry embraces those issues as well as management of native predators and the use of chemicals to control diseases.

Box 3 - Australia's marine industries

The gross financial value of marine based industries in Australia increased from $16 billion in 1987 to $30 billion in 1994. The major industries are:

  • tourism and recreation $15 billion*;
  • oil and gas production $8 billion;
  • shipping and transport $3.8 billion;
  • commercial fishing and aquaculture $1.6 billion.

Our marine industries include many growth areas and currently employ over 220 000 people (including 187 000 in marine tourism).

There is also significant potential to increase development of new industries, for example, aquaculture, fast ship technology, marine biotechnology, alternative energy sources and knowledge-based exports, such as marine environmental services.

* Marine tourism is calculated as 90% of all domestic tourism and recreation, and 19% of overseas visitor tourism

Seafood industry

By world standards the Australian seafood industry is not large given the size of our EEZ. The industry employs 19 000 people in the catching sector alone, and comprises around 1 182 establishments licensed to extract and process seafood. What Australia does produce and export is of high value and there are two general market niches: live or very fresh seafood, which attracts a premium price particularly in Japan and other parts of Asia where Australia has a `clean food' reputation; and further processed seafood, such as packaged meals, where there has been limited success and where further research and development is required.

The most valuable single-fisheries export items for 1995-96 was rock lobsters at a value of around $400 million. Sales of abalone were $148 million and prawns $223 million. In the same year Australia imported $590 million worth of seafood, mainly from new Zealand.

Apart from the general problem of overfishing, a key issue facing the seafood industry is the critical need to maintain a clean and healthy marine environment.

Other issues include concerns about use by other nations of non-tariff trade barriers for seafood products, and the potential introduction of pests, such as through ballast water. Growth in profitability in the seafood industry is expected to come from aquaculture and greater value-adding to products of wild fisheries. Both will require the development of new technologies and support services such as fast freight.


Offshore oil and gas production is one of Australia's largest marine industries with an estimated value of production of about $8 billion each year. Offshore petroleum is a major industry in Australia and in the past 30 years more than 1 400 wells have been drilled offshore and 3 500 million barrels of oil, worth around $120 billion, have been extracted. In the early 1990s the export of petroleum products was worth $4.5 billion, equal to the value of meat exports.

Offshore oil exploration is conducted with mobile drilling rigs and production usually occurs from platforms. Australia's remaining oil and gas reserves, both economic and uneconomic, are estimated to be about 3 billion barrels of crude oil and condensate and 84 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Over 90 per cent of oil and gas reserves lie below the seabed of the continental shelf.

A relatively small area of Australia's continental shelf has been explored intensively. Much of the effort so far has been in Bass Strait and the Carnarvon Basin and Bonaparte Basin, both offshore from north-west Australia. The gross export revenue from the North-West Shelf gas project is expected to have reached $50 billion by the turn of the Century.

Potential oil and gas formations exist in a variety of other offshore areas which are virtually unexplored. The industry conducts extensive seismic and other survey work in offshore areas to pinpoint prospective areas. This is supported by broader-scale baseline research done by the Australian Geological Survey Organisation.

A number of factors will influence the industry's future performance. These include: movements in the international supply and demand for petroleum; capital availability for exploration and development; taxation issues; and the development of new technologies. The Australian offshore oil exploration and production industry has a very good record for safety and minimum environmental impact. Spills since production began 25 years ago have amounted to 800 barrels.

A review by the Australian Independent Scientific Review Committee reported in 1993 that oil spills from Australian offshore production were insignificant compared with urban and industrial sources of hydrocarbon pollution. It was also found that air guns used in seismic surveys did not pose a significant hazard to marine life at least in the offshore environment. The review noted that acute toxic effects of drilling fluids on marine organisms were found only at very high concentrations, typically observed less than 150 metres from the discharge point, and only for short periods after a discharge. During the production phase there were only minor risks to plants and animals living in the water column and close to the discharge.

Marine biotechnology

Marine biotechnology uses biological material from the sea to produce goods and services. It usually involves the extraction of chemicals, including pharmaceuticals, from aquatic plants and animals, and the engineering of marine organisms to enhance their biological characteristics. Areas of greatest interest include the extraction of biologically-active compounds or pharmaceuticals, the cloning of proteins of marine origin, the analysis of marine toxins and anti-venoms, the development of industrial adhesives and the development of diagnostic probes for marine pathogens.

The greatest constraint on marine biotechnology at the present time is that all the opportunities involve long lead times and high risks. Other critical issues that can affect bio-prospecting for genetic material include access and ownership of intellectual property rights. Australia has successfully developed the mass culture of the algae Dunaliella salina as a source of natural beta-carotene and the export of product to Japan, the United States and Europe. For Australia, one of the big impediments to developing a strong marine biotechnology industry is the capacity to invest in the necessary R&D. Another emerging area in biotechnology is bio-remediation, which uses marine and other organisms to digest contaminants and toxins in the environment. More generally, environment protection technology and services will be areas of growth, although they are not limited to the use of marine biotechnology.

Minerals and alternative technology

Seabed mining is a largely undeveloped industry with large potential, provided technical and environmental problems can be overcome, such as potential coastal erosion or impact on sediment dynamics. There has been some commercial activity to date.

There is considerable interest in exploration and about 70 per cent of the New South Wales coastline, within the 3 mile territorial sea, has been marked out as holding potential. There is also interest in other States.

Some low value materials such as gravels and limestone have been dredged. Further extraction of gravel and sand may occur in the future, particularly close to urban areas with few or no land based resources of this type. It is likely that much more valuable, but perhaps more inaccessible, minerals such as metals and gemstones will also be targeted in the future. Some licences have already been granted for gold and diamonds in Australia. There is also serious interest in some deep water manganese and metal ore deposits. Analysis indicates that it is now economically viable to extract deposits of this type in some areas.

Alternative energy is another largely undeveloped area that has been the subject of some limited experimentation. Growth will be determined by a range of factors including technological feasibility and pricing, as well as the availability of other energy sources. Some have suggested that significant potential exists for tidal energy schemes in Northern Australia.

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