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EcoNetwork – Port Stephens Inc. submission to the Independent Scientific Audit of Marine Parks in NSW

By Dr Bruce Pease

1.    Review the domestic and international commitments to conserving marine biodiversity, current actions for meeting these commitments and the effectiveness of these actions

Econetwork Port Stephens Inc. is a sustainability and conservation based network of environmentally concerned citizen groups. While our primary focus is on community and environmental issues in the Port Stephens region, we try to think globally while acting locally. Therefore, we are addressing this state-wide review of marine parks with our global concerns, which are based on our local concern for the Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park. 

The NSW government has both international and domestic commitments to implement a representative system of marine protected areas (MPAs). Australia is a signatory to the international Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) that requires all member nations to establish and manage a system of protected areas for the conservation of biological diversity. Under the obligations of the CBD, the governments of Australia and New Zealand founded the Australia and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council Task Force on Marine Protected Areas (ANZECC) which published guidelines for establishing a national system of MPA’s in 1998. The current system of five Marine Parks in NSW has been established following the recognized “best practice” guidelines developed by ANZECC. EcoNetwork Port Stephens believes that the current size and zoning structure of marine parks in NSW provides the initial and therefore minimum commitment to the effective conservation of marine and estuarine biodiversity in NSW. Under its international and domestic commitments, the NSW Government must continue a program of monitoring and research within the marine park system that will provide a basis for reviewing and maximising the effectiveness of this system for conserving marine biodiversity into the future. We believe the completely protected sanctuary/refuge zones should ultimately be expanded to 30% of the total Marine Park area.

Our most important commitment must be to our children. Under the basic principle of sustainable management, our children have a right to inherit Australian marine and estuarine ecosystems that are as least as healthy as they were when we inherited them from our parents.

2. Review the scientific data provided to the Panel by the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the Office of Environment & Heritage

The majority of scientific data provided by the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) relates primarily to marine rocky reef habitats.  There is relatively little ecological information on estuarine and ocean beach habitats. This indicates that DPI and the Marine Parks Authority have a historic bias toward the ecological importance of marine rocky reef habitats at the expense of many other habitat types.

The data provided by the Office of Environment & Heritage has not been collected at a scale or within a design framework that is suitable for use in assessing the effectiveness of marine protected areas. Catchments and estuaries can be comparatively assessed but not habitats or protected zones within estuaries.

3. Review the degree to which all threats to the varying types of marine environments have been properly identified and prioritised. The Panel will then consider the degree to which the marine parks process is anticipated to address each significant threat

At the local scale, increasing human populations, their development and extraction activities in coastal catchments and the associated threats of non-point source pollution to estuarine habitats have not been thoroughly identified and prioritised. There is currently much concern within our local community over increased mining activity for resources such as gold and coal seam gas in the upper catchments of the Port Stephens and Great Lakes estuaries, but the associated threats of increased sediment and toxic chemical loads to downstream estuarine habitats in the Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park have not been identified. Research on sediment transport, sedimentation, erosion and associated impacts should be a high priority for the Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park in order to address this significant threat.

At the global scale, the Commonwealth Government acknowledges the global impact of climate change through carbon tax legislation but the associated potential impacts of sea level rise and seawater acidification on zones and habitats within NSW Marine Parks have not been identified as a significant threat by the NSW Marine Parks Authority or DPI, despite a recommendation from the report in your “Audit document tracking database” entitled “Independent Review of Marine Parks in NSW” by Fairweather, Buxton, and Robinson (2009).

4. Review the specific science relating to the effectiveness of marine parks in protecting different habitat types and recommend further action and/or alternative management approaches if necessary

A review of the Research Work Plans by the NSW Marine Parks Authority, associated research by NSW DPI and various university partnerships reveal that research and monitoring work in NSW Marine Parks to date has been focused primarily on marine rocky reef habitats and associated megafauna. There has been very little research to assess or monitor the effectiveness of protected areas in any of the valuable estuarine or ocean beach habitats. It is a well known fact that many (Pollard, 1976 estimated 70%) of the commercially and recreationally valuable fish and invertebrates that are harvested in a range of marine habitats in southeastern Australia are dependent on estuarine habitats at some point in their life-history. Many marine fish and invertebrate species use estuaries as nursery grounds and a range of seabird species use intertidal estuarine habitats as feeding grounds.  Estuarine seagrass beds remove CO2 from the environment more efficiently than terrestrial forests. Ocean beach habitats support a range of valuable fisheries, including commercial beach hauling for finfish, recreational angling for finfish and commercial/recreational hand gathering fisheries for pipis and beach worms. More research in protected estuarine and ocean beach habitats within NSW Marine Parks will help in the assessment of their value and effectiveness.

The current system of marine parks in NSW does not completely fulfil the ANZECC requirements of a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system, because some estuarine habitat types are not represented at all and other habitat types, such as the ocean beaches, are under-represented compared with continental shelf habitats.  Large, geologically immature, non-tidal, permanently open, barrier-type estuaries (Roy, 1984), such as Wallis, Macquarie, Tuggerah, Illawarra and St. George Lakes, are a characteristic feature of the central bioregions of NSW (Pease, 1999), but habitats in this distinct estuary type are not represented within the protected zones of any marine park in NSW.  This oversight could be rectified by adding protected areas within Wallis Lake to the Port Stephens – Great Lakes Marine Park.

Some estuarine habitats in geologically mature, tidal, barrier-type estuaries are protected with no-take sanctuary zones but none of the habitats near the marine entrance to these estuaries enjoy sanctuary status. Therefore, commercial and recreational fishing activities may significantly impact on the essential movement of fish and invertebrates in and out of this significant estuary type, compromising the effectiveness of the sanctuary zones within these estuaries to protect other significant estuarine habitats. This oversight could be rectified by extending the sanctuary zone in Corindi River, in the Solitary Islands Marine Park, all the way to its marine entrance.

5. Recommend ways to increase the cost-effectiveness of marine park zoning arrangements

Expand and connect wherever possible the current set of small, disjointed refuge areas to ultimately achieve 30% of the total Marine Park area.  This will simplify and reduce the cost of compliance. It will also increase the value of “ecosystem services” if refuge areas are functioning together, rather than as smaller individual units.

6. Recommend ways to improve inclusion of social and economic impacts into decision-making on marine parks, in particular the design and management of marine parks

The economic value of marine protected areas has historically been underestimated because it is typically based only on the value of extractive fisheries resources and tourism. The true economic value of these areas must include all “ecosystem services” such as carbon removal and storage by macrophytes and algae, fish and invertebrate nursery functions for commercial and recreational fisheries, as well as protection of foreshores from wave and storm surge damage. The cost of externalities must also be incorporated into any financial calculation on which decisions are made. The Australian Centre for Policy Development (Centre for Policy Development, 2011) has recently estimated that Australian marine habitats have been undervalued by at least 25 billion dollars per year from failure to include ecosystem services in valuations. More accurate value estimates for protected areas would allow more realistic economically based assessment and comparison of socio-economic factors during reviews of marine park design and management.

7. Identify and recommend ways to address the most significant information gaps hindering robust, evidence-based decision-making on marine parks

Conduct more research and monitoring in estuarine and ocean beach habitats within marine parks to improve the evidence-based decision-making on protected areas within these ecologically important and economically valuable habitat types.

Use socio-economically based techniques such as those provided in the report within your “Audit document tracking database” entitled “Economic values of NSW Marine Parks” by Hassall and Gillespie (2004) to assess and compile economic values for ecosystem services provided by habitats in all protected areas of NSW Marine Parks. It is understood that funding for scientific research in marine parks is limited.  Therefore, community volunteer programs for ecological health and usage monitoring using motivated and trained members of the community should be encouraged. Ecological observers can be a very useful component of long-term monitoring programs.

8. Make recommendations on how all current potential threats to the marine environment could be effectively addressed and which bodies or agencies would be most appropriate to address them

Threats to fisheries resources could be addressed more directly using the Status of Fisheries Resources reports (most recently: Rowling, Hegarty and Ives. 2010) which are produced by NSW DPI. The level of protection could be increased in Marine Park zones for species that are classified as “overfished” or “uncertain” in the Status reports. The pipi resource provides a useful example of how this approach could be applied.  The most recent report shows the status of the pipi resource as “uncertain” because commercial catch statistics show that the catch per unit of fishing effort for this species has declined steadily since 1998. Annual commercial catches are now a fraction of the 1998 peak and anecdotal information from recreational fishers also indicates that stocks are at an all time low. We cannot afford to wait a number of years until a suitable monitoring program has been implemented and the scientific information identifies the cause for the decline in pipi stocks. If hand gathering of pipis was banned in habitat protection zones within all NSW Marine Parks, a significant percent of the pipi population in NSW would be protected from commercial and recreational harvest while research by NSW DPI on the cause of the population decline is implemented.

9. Make other recommendations as appropriate, related to achieving better management of the NSW marine environment

The principles of subsidiarity (decisions made at the most local level possible) and democracy should be applied to the management process by increasing representation of the local community. Stakeholders with vested interests must be represented but should not dominate the management decision-making process. In a democracy, communities should be the critical stakeholder when decisions are made. We believe sustainable communities (Espey, 2009) will play a key role in future governance models. Increased effort should be devoted to achieving an overlap between community view informed by science (action research) and the scientific views informed by the community. Community volunteer monitoring programs not only provide an inexpensive source of information, they also impart an increased sense of ownership and management responsibility. The co-management process needs to be monitored, reviewed and researched as part of the management improvement process in order to replicate and learn from experiences elsewhere in NSW and in the Commonwealth.

Solid research and monitoring evidence is needed for achieving better management. However, funding is limited and timely decisions must continue to be made using the best available international information from similar habitats and application of the precautionary principle.


Centre for Policy Development. 2011.

Espey, Q.I. 2009, “People, politics and partnerships to mitigate CO2 and global impacts”. UNFCCC Cop 15. ICLEI Local Government Climate Roadmap.

Fairweather, P., C.Buxton, and J. Robinson. 2009. “Marine Park Science in NSW – an Independent Review”. Report prepared for Marine Parks Advisory Council NSW.

Hassall and Gillespie. 2004. “Economic Values of NSW Marine Parks –

Models for Identifying Economic Values, and Developing Procedures for On-Going Data Collection and Monitoring”. For NSW Marine Parks Authority. By Hassall & Associates Pty Lt and Gillespie Economics. Sydney.

Pease, B.C.. 1999. “A spatially oriented analysis of estuaries and their associated commercial fisheries in New South Wales, Australia”. Fisheries Research. 42: 67-86.

Pollard, D.A. 1976. “Estuaries must be protected”, Australian Fisheries, 35: 61-65.

Rowling, K., A. Hegarty and M. Ives (Eds.). 2010, “Status of Fisheries Resources in NSW 2008/09”, NSW Industry and Investment, Cronulla, NSW.

Roy, P.S. 1984. “New South Wales Estuaries; their origin and evolution”. In: Thom, B.G. (Ed), Coastal Geomorphology in Australia. Academic Press. Sydney. pp. 99-121.

Dr Bruce Pease
EcoNetwork – Port Stephens Inc.