Commonwealth marine reserves - Background


National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas

The establishment of Commonwealth marine reserves around Australia completes the Commonwealth waters component of the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA). In 1998 the Commonwealth, States and Northern Territory governments committed themselves to establishing the NRSMPA by 2012. The Australian Government affirmed this commitment at the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. The primary goal of the NRSMPA is to establish and effectively manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of marine reserves to contribute to the long-term conservation of marine ecosystems and to protect marine biodiversity. The NRSMPA aims to be:

  • comprehensive - including the full range of ecosystems recognised at an appropriate scale within and across each bioregion
  • adequate - have the required level of reservation to ensure the ecological viability and integrity of populations, species and communities
  • representative - reasonably reflect the biotic diversity of marine ecosystems.

Goals and principles

In 1998, guidelines for establishing the NRSMPA were developed by an inter-governmental Task Force on Marine Protected Areas and agreed to by all Australian governments. The Australian Government later developed a set of Goals and Principles to apply the guidelines in Commonwealth waters. These Goals and Principles provide a consistent framework for identifying new marine reserves in Commonwealth waters and emphasise the strong role of science in the process.

Consistent with the Goals and Principles, the Australian Government's objective in developing the regional networks of marine reserves has been to achieve a significant conservation outcome while seeking to minimise adverse impacts on users of the marine environment. The general approach was to design new marine reserves that, where possible, avoided areas highly valued by industry groups and recreational users.

The science behind the design of new marine reserves

The Goals and Principles include four goals to guide the identification of areas suitable for inclusion in the NRSMPA. Together, the goals provide direction on how to ensure that all types of marine ecosystems and their biodiversity are represented within the national network of marine reserves.

  • Goal 1 states that each provincial bioregion occurring in a marine region should be represented in the marine reserve network. The Integrated Marine and Coastal Regionalisation of Australia (IMCRA v4.0) is a scientific analysis that has classified Australia's marine environment into broadly similar ecological regions (including provincial bioregions). The 41 provincial bioregions in Australian waters have been determined largely on the basis of research on different assemblages of fish species and sponges that live at the seafloor as well as different types of deep water habitats and seafloor sediments.
  • Goal 2 states that all oceans depths should be represented in the marine reserve network. Scientific assessment has demonstrated that different biological communities live at different depths. Therefore, by including different ocean depths within Commonwealth marine reserve networks, we can ensure that examples of all types of marine biodiversity will be protected.
  • Goal 3 states that examples of benthic/demersal biological features (for example large scale seafloor habitats, communities, ecosystems) should be represented in the marine reserve network. Marine biological features have been determined through scientific analysis of fine-scale information on distribution patterns of fish and invertebrate species as well as physical features such as sediment grain size and composition, seabed temperatures, and bathymetry. Scientists have also analysed marine biological features to identify large scale ecological features (or Key Ecological Features) that support distinct or important ecological communities at a regional scale.
  • Goal 4 states that examples of all different types of physical seafloor features should be represented in the marine reserve network. Seafloor features include underwater seamounts, canyons, and plains. By including samples of all different seafloor features in marine reserves, we ensure that the different ecological communities associated with these features are protected.

Scientific and expert inputs

Scientific data and information provided the foundation for identifying and designing new Commonwealth marine reserves.

The types of information that were used in the design of Commonwealth marine reserves were varied and covered biophysical data, information about the location and distribution of human activities in each marine region and information provided by industry, managers and regulators, ocean users and stakeholders in each marine region.

While drawing on the available science, the approach taken recognised from the outset that the information base for some areas is limited. A significant proportion of each marine region is far offshore, often comprised of very deep water, and has not been the subject of detailed scientific study. In circumstances where detailed data on biodiversity is lacking, surrogates for biodiversity (such as water depth and seafloor features) have been used. This is because science tells us different habitats and species are associated with different physical features in the ocean.

Scientific and expert inputs included:

The marine bioregional planning online data list shows how you can access the primary data that was used in the design of Commonwealth marine reserves.

Some information that was used in the marine bioregional planning process (for example, some data on commercial fisheries activities and oil and gas prospectivity) is confidential and cannot be shared publicly. However, most data are available either through the internet or by contacting the agency or group that owns the data (the data 'custodian') directly.

Social and economic assessments

The Commonwealth Marine Reserves networks have been designed to minimise both social and economic impacts while creating a system of marine protected areas that represents Australia's diversity of marine ecosystems and habitats and the life they support while minimising both social and economic impacts.

The work of the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) on the social and economic implications of each of the regional marine reserves network proposals played an important role in the design of the networks. This work, undertaken with the assistance of the commercial fishing industry, resulted in five assessments covering the South-west, North-west, North, Coral Sea and Temperate East marine regions. Assessments looked at both the direct and indirect impacts of the proposed networks on the fishing industry (including commercial and charter fishing) and the potential impacts on related communities. ABARES assessments estimate that around 1 per cent of the total annual value of Australia's commercial fisheries will be displaced as a result of the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Networks established in November 2012.

ABARES social and economic assessments

Regulatory impact statement

When deciding on the final marine reserves networks the Government considered the Regulation Impact Statement. A Regulation Impact Statement is required for all proposals that are expected to have an impact - whether positive or negative - on businesses or not-for-profit organisations, unless these costs are of a minor nature.

The Final Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network Proposal Regulatory Impact Statement is available on the federal Office of Best Practice Regulation's website:

Fact sheets

Previous consultation on Commonwealth marine reserves

Australia's Marine Bioregional Planning Program developed Marine Bioregional Plans and identified new Commonwealth marine reserves in Commonwealth waters. Marine bioregional plans have been prepared under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) to improve the way decisions are made under national environmental law about the protection of marine biodiversity and the sustainable use of marine resources.

New Commonwealth marine reserves (sometimes called marine protected areas or marine parks) were identified through the marine bioregional planning process as part of Australia's commitment to establish a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA) by 2012. A network of marine reserves was established in the South-east Marine Region in 2007 prior to the commencement of the marine bioregional planning program.

Consultation steps

There have been several steps where industry, marine managers/regulators, the community and scientific experts were invited to contribute. These steps were:

Bioregional Profiles

Bioregional Profiles were released for the South-west Marine Region in October 2007, the North-west and North Marine Regions in November 2008, and East Marine Region in May 2009 (the East Marine Region comprised both the Temperate East and Coral Sea Marine Regions). Bioregional Profiles for these marine regions were developed using a variety of information including scientific papers, commissioned reports, industry performance reporting, census data and expert advice. A large number of scientists, managers/regulators, industry representatives and other stakeholders were involved in the preparation of each bioregional profile through workshops, meetings, and targeted data-gathering projects.

Following the release of each bioregional profile, regional multi-stakeholder workshops and targeted sectoral meetings were held to provide further information on the marine bioregional planning process and to invite stakeholder feedback on the profiles. Stakeholders were also asked to identify new and/or additional information that should be taken into consideration in the development of the draft marine bioregional plans.

Public feedback on the bioregional profiles and additional information provided by scientists, industry groups and Australian Government and state/territory government agencies provided the basis for the development of draft marine bioregional plans and marine reserve network proposals for each marine region.

Areas for Further Assessment

The release of Areas for Further Assessment was a step in the marine bioregional planning process aimed at assisting in the identification of new Commonwealth marine reserves. Areas for Further Assessment were areas within which new marine reserves were likely to be created and were identified to aid detailed collation and analysis of information, particularly regarding the socio-economic implications of reserve options.

Extensive consultations on the Areas for Further Assessment occurred through meetings and targeted data-gathering projects. Detailed information collected through this phase of consultations contributed directly to the process of designing marine reserve network proposals for each marine region. In particular, the information gathered was being used to help minimise potential impacts of marine reserves on people who use marine resources.

Areas for Further Assessment were released for consultation in the South-west Marine Region in May 2009, the North-west and North Marine Regions in November 2009 and the East Marine Region in March 2010.

Draft marine bioregional plans and draft Commonwealth marine reserves network proposals

Between May 2011 and February 2012, public feedback was invited on the draft marine bioregional plans and draft Commonwealth marine reserve network proposals for the South-west, North, North-west, Coral Sea and Temperate East Marine Regions.

The department arranged meetings with stakeholder groups and held public events in coastal areas around Australia during the 90 day public consultation period in each region. A total of 245 public and stakeholder meetings were held and attended by about 2,000 people.

Stakeholders were invited to provide feedback on the consultation documents online via the department's website; via email to a dedicated regional submissions email address; or in hard copy posted free of charge to the department. A total of 566,377 submissions were received, the vast majority of which focused on the draft marine reserves network proposals.

Final marine bioregional plans and marine reserves network proposals

Information received through public submissions and stakeholder consultations undertaken between May 2011 and February 2012, together with the socio-economic assessments undertaken by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences, were considered by the government in finalising the marine bioregional plans and marine reserve network proposals for each region.

Marine bioregional plans have been finalised for four of Australia's marine regions.

Proclamation of Commonwealth marine reserves

Following the release of the final Commonwealth marine reserve network proposal for each region, members of the public were invited to comment on the proposal to proclaim the final Commonwealth marine reserves network under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Approximately 80,000 submissions on the proposal were received and in accordance with requirements of the EPBC Act, the Director of National Parks prepared a report on the comments received, along with the Director's views on them. The Minister was required to consider this report in deciding whether to recommend that the Governor-General proclaim the reserves.

The Governor-General's proclamation declaring the new Commonwealth Marine Reserves was registered on the Federal Register of Legislative Instruments on 16 November 2012. The reserves came into effect on 17 November 2012.

In December 2013, the Governor-General reproclaimed the Commonwealth marine reserves in the South-west, North-west, North and Temperate East networks and the Coral Sea marine reserve. As a result the associated management plans for these reserves were set aside.

The South-east Commonwealth marine reserves network was proclaimed in 2007.


Development of network management plans

In July 2012, the public were invited to comment on the draft management plan for the South-east marine reserves network under the EPBC Act. The Director of National Parks prepared a report on the comments received, along with the Director’s views on them. The 10 year management plan for South-east network was approved and tabled in Parliament in March 2013 and came into effect on 1 July 2013.

Transitional management arrangements apply for reserves in the South-west, North-west, North, Temperate East and Coral Sea whilst management plans are being developed.