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Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Our Sea, Our Future
Major findings of the State of the Marine Environment Report for Australia

Compiled by Leon P. Zann
Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Townsville Queensland

Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, Canberra (1995)
ISBN 0 642 17391 5

7. The state of Australia's marine environment and the major issues

The state of the marine environment: 'Generally good but...'

It is not possible to simply and precisely assess the state of Australia's marine environment because of its vast size and great diversity, the diversity and complexity of issues affecting it, and the great gaps in our scientific knowledge of it.

However, on the basis of the existing limited information, and in comparison with both neighbouring countries and equivalent developed countries in the northern hemisphere(93),(95), the condition or 'health' of Australia's marine environment might be rated as 'generally good', but with many important caveats or qualifiers.

The condition of specific areas ranges from 'almost pristine' in very remote, undeveloped areas(12),(42-47),(73),(75),(76),(81),(85), to locally 'poor' off many highly developed urban, industrial and intensively farmed areas in the south-east(42-47),(51-55), and south-west(56) of the continent. The condition of offshore environments is better than inshore environments because of dilution of pollutants(45).

Undeveloped areas little affected

Most of our marine environment is far removed from the major population centres and is little affected by most human activities. The northern(57), far north-eastern(51),(69) and most of the western coasts(57) of the continent, the Great Australian Bight(55) and Australia's External Territories(73) in the Indian Ocean, South Pacific, Southern Ocean and Antarctica(75) are amongst the least polluted places on earth.

Highly developed areas more seriously affected

Australia's population is highly concentrated in coastal cities in the south-east and south-west. Here the state of the adjacent marine environment may be locally poor(51-56). So while the state of Australia's marine environment is on average, good, the state of the marine environment near where the urban Australian lives is often 'not good'.

The top five concerns

  1. Declining marine and coastal water/sediment quality, particularly as a result of inappropriate catchment land use practices.
  2. Loss of marine and coastal habitat.
  3. Unsustainable use of marine and coastal resources.
  4. Lack of marine science policy and lack of long-term research and monitoring of the marine environment.
  5. Lack of strategic, integrated planning in the marine and coastal environments.
Figure 138

Figure 138: Land and sea are closely linked in the coastal zone. Catchment uses in Australia have had major effects on estuaries and inshore waters.

1. Declining water quality

Declining water quality and sedimentation were regarded as probably the most serious issues affecting Australia's marine and coastal environments. Land and sea are closely linked in the coastal zone. Elevated nutrients and sedimentation are largely the result of inappropriate catchment land use practices, sewage discharges and urban run-off.(1),(6),(40),(42-47),(51-57)

2. Loss of marine and coastal habitat

Many of the environmental issues identified are related to water quality and loss of habitat, and are overlapping in nature.(7-14),(51-57)

3. Unsustainable use of marine and coastal resources

Over-harvesting of fish and other marine life, coastal developments, and conflicting resource use, are critical issues around Australia.(29-35)

4. Lack of marine science policy

Little geographically comprehensive and long-term scientific information is available on the marine environment. Without this it is difficult to accurately assess its condition, to identify trends, and to design and assess management programs. Many of the findings in SOMER are therefore based on limited data sets, descriptive information and expert scientific opinion.(1-57),(63)

5. Other issues

6. Regional issues

Hundreds of regional issues were raised in SOMER. The most serious include:

Management Implications

The most serious issues in Australia's marine environment stem from poor catchment use, and therefore declining water quality. Increased levels of nutrients and sediments are the major problems.

The most serious consequence of these are die-back of seagrasses in temperate Australia(10) and threats to inshore corals in the wet tropics(12).

The major causes are soil erosion and declining inland water quality, two of our greatest problems on land(1). The crisis in Australia's inland waters is well accepted. Elevated nutrients from soil erosion, agricultural fertilisers, live stock, sewage and urban run-off has resulted in regular blooms of toxic algae(14,42,53-55). Not so well accepted is that this then becomes a problem in estuaries, coastal lakes, bays and coastal waters. Degradation of estuaries and die-back of seagrass cause declines in coastal fisheries(31).

The key issues are thus interrelated. Because the major source of marine environmental threats lie inland in the catchments, strategic, integrated planning and management in the coastal zone is of paramount importance. Integrated catchment management is probably almost as important to the sea as it is to the land.