Australian Marine Parks

Andrew S. Hoey* and Morgan S. Pratchett. Final report – 9th June, 2017. Produced for the Department of the Environment and Energy.

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Executive summary

Context and Purpose

Recognizing the importance of marine protected areas (MPAs) for marine ecosystem protection and conservation; the Australian Government has established a nationwide network of Commonwealth marine reserves (CMRs).

The CMR estate was established with substantial scientific input, including through the Marine Bioregional Planning Programme which provided a series of Marine Bioregional Plans for Commonwealth waters.

Parks Australia manages CMRs on behalf of the Director of National Parks.

Parks Australia commissions research and monitoring in relation to CMRs to assist with management and evaluation of the effectiveness of these reserves.

These efforts are complemented by external research and monitoring undertaken by national and international universities, Australian Government institutions (such as the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Geosciences Australia, and the Australian Museum), consultants and private enterprise.

The purpose of this review was to compile the scientific literature (mainly, journal publications and reports) relevant to the natural (biodiversity) values of each of the five Commonwealth Marine Reserve Networks and the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve.

This includes providing a summary of the scientific literature relevant to each network and how it relates to the monitoring marine biodiversity, identifying key research and monitoring knowledge gaps, future research needs, and potential indicators.

Monitoring of marine biodiversity (as defined by the CMR review expert scientific panel in 2015) not involves only state-base monitoring to establish the range of species that occur in different areas of the CMRs, but also spatial and temporal analyses of the entire suite of processes (e.g., oceanography) that influence these distributions, including threats (e.g., climate change), which could modify species distributions and ecosystem functions.

Extent of Knowledge

This review built upon the 2010 Review of Research and Monitoring in Australia’s Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas (Ceccarelli 2011), and identified 1,115 publications and reports (i.e. records) relevant to natural and biodiversity values.

All of these records were entered in to the 2016 Commonwealth Marine Reserves Database.

This represents a significant increase from the 363 records included in the 2010 review.

Overall, the number of records prior to 2000 was relatively low (121 entries), and grew steadily to 490 entries in 2010, with the majority of records being published in the last six years (2011-2016: 625 entries).

Together with this temporal variation, there were substantial differences in the number of records that related to each of the regional networks (from 55 records for the North CMR Network to 302 records for the South-west CMR Network).

Similarly, the number of records that related to individual CMRs ranged from 0 records for several CMRs to 109 records for the Lord Howe CMR (and 116 records for the Coral Sea CMR).

While these differences in research effort do not directly translate to knowledge of status and trends, they provide a useful proxy.

There was limited comprehensive baseline biological, oceanographic, or geomorphological data for the majority of the CMRs.

The number of records relevant to, and hence the quantity of research conducted within, individual CMRs is likely to be influenced by a suite of factors, including remoteness and ease of access, logistic and financial constraints of sampling (e.g. deep water benthic communities), relevance to issues of national importance, the local occurrence of specific organisms and habitats, and the general interest of the scientific community and institutions.

Focus of Research Knowledge

A broad scope was taken in this review to include research that was both directly and indirectly (or potentially) relevant to the natural values of CMRs.

For example, literature that relates to regional processes that may or may not have been conducted within CMRs, but that may influence the natural values in some way, were included.

Overall the majority of research related to ecological communities, with non-coral invertebrates, fish and corals being the most commonly research groups.

This was largely consistent among regions, although the relative importance of corals and non-coral invertebrates tended to swap between tropical/subtropical and temperate regions.

While there are some ongoing monitoring programs within a limited number of individual CMR’s, there is currently no systematic research and monitoring program that spans the entire CMR Network, and the number of long-term monitoring programs of biodiversity values directly relevant to management is extremely limited.

Considerable research (41% of records) has focused on pressures and threats to biodiversity within and adjacent to CMRs, with the main threats (in terms of number of records) being fishing and climate change.

However, the majority of published monitoring programs are too infrequent to detect change or attribute change to pressures, and hence inform and initiate appropriate management actions.

Some of the most valuable temporal data series are those that have been commissioned by the Australian Government for some of the offshore shallow tropical and subtropical reefs, namely the ecological surveys of Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs, the terrestrial and marine surveys of the former Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve, and the reef ecology surveys of Ashmore Reef Commonwealth Marine Reserve.

Research through the National Environmental Research Program has also provided systematic monitoring in deeper temperate waters such the Flinders and Freycinet CMRs in the South-east Network.

These time-series allow the status and trends of these locations to be determined, but are also important in informing the likely status of both adjacent areas, and similar habitats elsewhere.