Fish and coral in tropical waters of north-west Western Australia

Fish and coral in tropical waters of north-west Western Australia

The North West Shelf: a model system for multiple use management strategies

A large scale study with the Western Australian Government has produced a world first report on management strategies for marine ecosystems to achieve ecologically sustainable development.

  • 10 April 2008 | Updated 6 June 2013

The North West Shelf Joint Environmental Management Study (NWSJEMS) is a A$7.7 million marine environmental study of the North West Shelf, initiated by the Western Australian Government and jointly funded by the Wealth from Oceans National Research Flagship.

The region is characterised by habitats of high ecological value.

NWSJEMS delivers practical, objective tools to help planners envisage different development scenarios and management options, and comprehensively evaluate their potential impacts on marine ecosystems – a process called management strategy evaluation.

Balancing development and conservation

Western Australia’s North West Shelf (NWS) is one of the most economically significant coastal and sea regions in Australia.

It produces the majority of Australia’s domestic and exported oil and gas, and its ports carry most of the nation’s iron ore exports.

The infrastructure supporting these and other industries is concentrated along the coastal fringe or in offshore facilities.

The region is also characterised by habitats of high ecological value, such as:

  • mangrove forest
  • seagrass beds
  • coral reefs
  • sponge beds.

These habitats support a diverse fish community, as well as protected species such as dugongs, turtles and whale sharks.

Maintaining the region’s environmental assets during a period of rapid industrialisation poses major challenges.

The high rate of growth in this region has also led to complex, and somewhat fragmented, management and regulatory structures.

However, the Western Australian Government recognised that a collaborative and informed approach is essential in balancing and managing the many uses of the North West Shelf ecosystem.

As a result, NWSJEMS was established to support ecologically sustainable development of the North West Shelf region.

Tackling the challenge

This was a collaborative research program that aimed to develop and demonstrate practical and science-based methods that support integrated regional planning and management of marine ecosystems to achieve ecologically sustainable development.

More than 25 organisations contributed to the project led by CSIRO’s Dr Scott Condie.

Rather than examining various marine issues in isolation, the study team took a holistic approach, acknowledging the interconnectedness of different marine use impacts.

To achieve this, they compiled existing data and developed powerful computer models to understand the system dynamics and identify and test new management approaches.

Achieving this ambitious objective required the development of a broad range of sophisticated new data management tools that would support the collation, retrieval, integration and display of key information.

It also required modelling tools that would support data extrapolation, scenario exploration and allow evaluation of management strategies in terms of policy or management objectives.

Sharing the outcomes

The study found that overall the NWS is a healthy ecosystem with well-managed developments.

The team identified some types of future development that might lead to environmental difficulties.

Crucially however, the research also showed how to avoid many of these problems without significantly hindering development.

The study also discovered critical knowledge gaps that can influence management outcomes, and where further research investment would be valuable.

The findings of NWSJEMS will help planners and policymakers develop effective strategies for managing the region’s diverse uses.

The study produced four major outcomes:

  • consolidation of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of data regarding the ecosystems and human activities of the NWS, from this and prior studies
  • ecological models that generate new insights into the dynamics of the NWS system
  • a new modelling framework for evaluating management options across the multiple sectors operating on the NWS
  • tools that allow both study participants and a broader user group to explore underlying data and model predictions.

Experience gained through the sequential development of alternative model representations has led to significant advances in ecosystem model structure and implementation, both within Australia and overseas.

The sophisticated techniques developed in NWSJEMS are being further improved and can be adapted for any marine ecosystem facing pressures from potentially competing uses.

The Wealth from Oceans Flagship is tailoring these approaches for application to the Ningaloo Marine Park and coastal New South Wales and plans to employ it in the Kimberley and other regions.

Many of the tools were developed as online resources.

Results of the study have been documented in a series of 18 technical reports, which are available on the study’s website.

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