Australian Marine Parks

Final Report to the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, by Daniela Ceccarelli, Oceania Maritime Consultants. June 2010.


Executive summary

In recognition of the widespread success of marine protected areas (MPAs), the Australian Government is in the process of establishing a nation-wide network of Commonwealth MPAs (CMPAs) through a process of Marine Bioregional Planning.

This process involves the gathering of information for the preparation of profiles that describe each Marine Region, and the implementation of Australia’s National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA) through the establishment of CMPA networks in each Region.

Over the last four decades, a large amount of research has been undertaken by a large variety of institutes and organizations.

This review provides an overview of research conducted in the existing CMPA estate, to highlight gaps in research and monitoring, and to make recommendations for filling those gaps.

This review identified 363 research papers and reports that were directly relevant to CMPAs and, where relevant, adjacent State MPAs.

The earliest research paper dated as far back as 1960, but the bulk of the research has taken place in the last ten years.

No systematic research and monitoring program exists for the CMPA estate as a whole, and the management of most CMPAs does not draw on monitoring programs designed for the long-term tracking of changes.

The amount of research conducted in each CMPA is likely to be influenced by the remoteness of the CMPA from a land-based station, features of interest, proximity to research institutions, and the shifting research interests of the scientific community.

The Great Australian Bight Marine Park (Commonwealth waters) (GABMP) and Lord Howe Island Marine Park (Commonwealth waters) (Lord Howe) have attracted the largest body of research.

While ecological research has dominated the research effort in all CMPAs, recent years have seen a rise in molecular research and in studies that require more sophisticated technology.

Literature reviews have provided a useful means of understanding specific threats to CMPAs, such as fishing, shipping and petroleum exploration and mining, but have also been an important tool in defining the characteristics of broad Marine Regions prior to the establishment of CMPA Networks.

Research in each CMPA has tended to focus on the features of the area considered most important, interesting or vulnerable.

Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve (Ashmore) was the only CMPA where successive ecological surveys could easily be tracked and related to previous and successive surveys.

A relatively rich body of ecological work exists for Mermaid Reef Marine National Nature Reserve (Mermaid) and Ningaloo Marine Park (Commonwealth waters) (Ningaloo) in the North-west Marine Region.

The South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network has the largest body of literature reviews compiled to aid the establishment of the Network in 2002.

The types of research projects available for each CMPA allow the identification of specific gaps.

There is little CMPA-specific understanding of underlying environmental parameters such as oceanography, geology and geomorphology for a number of the CMPAs, and some still lack species lists.

Patterns of productivity and fisheries activities relevant to each CMPA are also largely unknown.

A major gap for most research and monitoring programs in most CMPAs is the lack of consistent and reliable temporal data series, and the lack of research that incorporates reference or ‘control’ locations outside the CMPAs.

CMPAs that have the closest thing to a useful time-series are Ashmore (reef ecology surveys) and Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve (terrestrial and marine surveys).

The CMPAs that have benefited from data collection inside and outside their boundaries are Ashmore, Cartier Island Marine Reserve (Cartier), Mermaid, the Cod Grounds Commonwealth Marine Reserve (Cod Grounds), the GABMP and Coringa-Herald’ terrestrial environments.

The design of future research and monitoring surveys should take this into consideration.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in designing successful research and monitoring programs for individual CMPAs and Reserve Networks is one of administration.

A centralised organisation or group responsible for the design, implementation and reporting of research is the simplest format that may ensure continuity and consistency.

Staff turnover is often a critical factor in ensuring continuity and consistency, regardless of the model chosen.

A centralised group that maintains responsibility for research and monitoring in CMPAs or Reserve Networks may rely on a dedicated field team, or may choose personnel to build field teams depending on expertise and availability.

At present, the quality, quantity and type of information available therefore differs substantially between CMPAs.

As the CMPA estate expands into large-scale Reserve Networks in the future, monitoring the effectiveness of protection and tracking changes over time will offer a challenge to managers.

However, it will also offer an opportunity to design comprehensive, practical and cost-effective research and monitoring programs that fit into an adaptive management framework.

Key recommendations for research and monitoring in a system of new CMPA Networks arising from this review include:

  • Locate, collate, analyse and report on known existing datasets and databases. In some cases these existing data may suffice to fill existing knowledge gaps, precluding the need for further research.
  • Carry out baseline studies to ensure that there is knowledge for key areas of each proposed CMPA in new Networks and existing CMPAs. This will greatly assist in the establishment on management systems that can direct activities to the correct places - for instance: indicators for monitoring, specific areas of value or concern to be more highly protected, areas for active management such as pest eradication or control, and genetic connectivity between areas.
  • Decide whether to protect the “strong” or the “weak”, or both. This means identifying and scoring areas that may be classified as “strong” (e.g. high resistance or resilience to disturbance, intact trophic structure, stable environmental parameters, good recovery potential, high abundance and diversity of key organisms, high connectivity to larval sources) or “weak” (e.g. low resistance or resilience to disturbance, elements of the trophic structure low or missing - e.g. through historic overfishing of predators or invertebrates, poor recovery potential, low abundance and diversity of key organisms, low connectivity to larval sources). These considerations are most usefully set into a risk assessment-type decision-making framework.
  • Establish a system of environmental / ecological monitoring and compliance monitoring. The relative importance of types of monitoring will be dependent on the reserve type and usage patterns. If funds are short, compliance monitoring may be more important in some cases than environmental monitoring.
  • Collect environmental data as well as ecological, and facilitate the linking between the two types of data.
  • Regularly update this review with new information, to provide a central document that can act as a repository of current knowledge about CMPAs and CMPA Networks. Update the EndNote library with linked original electronic documents. The higher the frequency of these updates (e.g. annually), the lower the cost and time expenditure each time.