AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENT MARINE AND COAST INITIATIVES 2021

On 23rd April, the Prime Minister announced that the Australian Government “will make an additional $100 million investment to continue leading the world and our region in how we manage our ocean habitats and coastal environments and contribute to the global task of reducing emissions”. Hidden in these few words are not just indications of intent but claims that many may wish to contest. The purpose here, however, is to see where these intentions can best take us given various constraints as well as opportunities.

 Looking at what is termed an “investment package” in the statement, one should go beyond the usual mantra around job creation and in “driving down emissions”. There is clear recognition of the importance of the “blue economy” as it relates to Australia, in particular, for regional areas and Indigenous communities, as well as for our capacity to “assist developing countries in the region restore and protect their blue carbon ecosystems”. This may not come as a surprise when we know that our PM signed up last year to the call for action contained in the “High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy” along with 13 other member nations of the region (see www.oceanpanel.org). They agreed:

    “In accepting this responsibility and seizing this opportunity, we can give a blue boost to the economy today while mitigating and building resilience for future crises”.

What we see in the PM’s media release, backed by statements from ministers for Environment and Energy and Emissions Reduction, was a strong emphasis on oceans management. This is to be expected given the Commonwealth’s direct responsibility for oceans within the nation’s EEZ. Nearly $40 million will go to reinforcing Australia’s position as “a world leader in marine park management”. Included in this package is $15m towards ocean discovery and restoration projects “to help us understand more about our marine parks”. This immediately opens up the question as to how those “discovery” projects will tie into marine parks operated by State Governments (located inside 3km) which are much more intimately connected to the nation’s population, with a few exceptions, than those offshore.

Coming closer to the shore, the PM’s package identifies the need to support Indigenous communities and protected areas at various locations ($11.6m). However, a large proportion of federal funds will be “invested in practical action to restore and account for blue carbon ecosystems” ($30.6m). This is a most welcome initiative. It is building on the developing research strengths across Australia in blue carbon. Besides supporting on-ground projects in developing countries in line with principles espoused by the High-Level Ocean Panel noted above, it also aims to facilitate on-ground projects in “restoring coastal ecosystems across the country, including tidal marshes, mangroves and seagrasses”. Four “major” on-ground projects ($19m) are envisaged; one can only hope that discussions are underway to engage state and local governments in these projects in line with the objective of achieving practical outcomes.

The package also contains funds to protect iconic marine species and improve sustainability of fisheries in “our oceans” ($18m). In this connection the statement refers to funding the roll-out of ocean accounting at a national scale ($3m), and in helping “to solidify Australia as a leader in ocean and natural capital assistance” ($1m). I am especially interested in these initiatives having been involved in reviewing the first ocean Environmental Economic Account in SW Western Australia (see online “Ocean Accounting Pilot for Geographe Bay Marine Park”, November 2020, DAWE, which notes this is part of Australia’s participation in the High-Level Panel process). This exercise provided many lessons including the need to closely link to knowledge held by state and local agencies on community use and biophysical dynamics of waters and lands adjoining this federal park.

The PM’s marine package is just one of a number of further initiatives that the Australian Government is announcing in the lead up to the May budget. Following review of the recommendations of the Bushfire’s Royal Commission, a decision has been made to establish a National Recovery and Resilience Agency ($600m). We will learn more on how this agency will operate and work with state agencies soon. But the message is that it would help communities rebuild and strengthen defences against future disasters. Its work will be informed by a new Australian Climate Service involving input from several federal agencies (BoM, CSIRO, ABS, Geoscience, DAWE). This unit will look long-term at where assets are at risk in the context of future climate projections and possible consequences (including maladaptation?). In the coastal space this unit will be assisted by research from Marine and Coastal Hub of the National Environmental Science Program (NESP).

There will be plenty of opportunities in the near future to discuss the role and operations of all these marine and coast initiatives. I certainly welcome these announcements and see many opportunities for enhanced research and application of knowledge across a range of scales and interests in Australian waters and in Pacific and Indian Ocean regions. The highly aspirational principles in the High-Level Panel report deserve our fullest possible commitment. Any scepticism that I may have stems from experience in working with past Australian Governments on coastal management. In brief we should be conscious of the following:

  • Our federal system does not easily translate into agreed sustainable funding support on coast and marine issues that involve all three levels of government unlike some other countries; this issue is discussed in detail in the 2009 House of Representatives “Jenny George” report where solutions were offered but not accepted. Focus on individual “turf” responsibilities overlooks spatial interconnections relevant to the function of dynamic natural systems.
  • State governments have specific powers to manage coastal lands and territorial waters and bilateral negotiation is often required to achieve outcomes. We face huge national scale problems. The case for national leadership and support as enshrined in legislation similar to the US Coastal Management Act 1972 is something I continue to advocate.
  • Federal budget support on coast and marine “investments” has fluctuated widely over decades; this is what I call “switch on and off approach” so that at times we see direct investment as with the Coast and Clean Seas program under Minister Robert Hill in the late 1990s; then such support is switched off! The recent demise of NCCARF is another example.
  • At a national level there has been a good case for the federal government to invest with the states in long-term biophysical monitoring of coastal ecosystems that are sensitive to change in condition and function. There are good examples of such programs elsewhere such as the National Estuary Program (NEP) in the USA oversighted by the federal EPA. Can these new Australian Government initiatives lead to something like this?
  • To a large extent we have an institutional (perhaps even a cultural) problem in how best to translate our good science into public policy. I won’t dwell on this point today except to say that there is a continuous need to address how public policy and emerging science can better connect without putting at risk the integrity and value of respective contributions. The call by the PM for “practical actions” should be seen in this light.

Bruce Thom    

Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2021. For correspondence about this blog post please email austcoastsoc@gmail.com

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