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7 March 2017 5 min read

Every five years, the Australian Government commissions an independent national assessment of the state of the Australian environment. Australia State of the Environment 2016 is the fifth national assessment and includes nine detailed thematic reports exploring: atmosphere, built environment, heritage, biodiversity, land, inland water, coasts, marine and Antarctic environment. CSIRO's Dr Karen Evans, Dr Nicholas Bax and Dr David Smith prepared the marine chapter.

Woman scuba diving with striped fish
Dr Karen Evans diving in French Polynesia, working with the Ministry of Fisheries (Service de la Peche) to help set up a tagging program on broadbill swordfish.

ECOS spoke to Dr Karen Evans, a Senior Research Scientist at CSIRO specialising in the behaviour of marine predators and their responses to environmental variability, on the state of Australia's marine environment.

ECOS: What were you working on in 2011 when the last State of the Environment Report was released?

KE: The focus of my work, and that of the people I work with, has not changed a lot since then. We are still working on national and international sustainable fisheries questions, mainly focused on pelagic fisheries.

One project I was involved in for the first time in our region saw a group of international scientists from the Cook Islands, Spain, US, New Zealand and Australia bring together a multi-institutional data set on the movement dynamics of broadbill swordfish in the Pacific Ocean. Global data collaborations are key to establishing the big picture on the future outlook for the marine environment.

ECOS: What was the scope of your chapter?

KE: The scope of the marine chapter was to provide an overview of the current state of the marine environment. This area is defined as the sea floor plus the water column above it. Unlike in 2011, the land-sea interface and tidal zones are covered in a coasts chapter which has been more extensively developed in this year’s report.

Our assessment looks at the marine communities and habitats, along with a number of major species groups. We also looked at the environmental processes that occur in the marine environment.

We looked at the current pressures on the marine environment, the impacts of these pressures, and how effective management is in addressing these pressures. Then we asked, in light of existing management approaches, what residual risks remain to the marine environment. Bringing all of the information together we then provide an outlook on the marine environment and describe the knowledge gaps that would help us to better identify the state of the marine environment in the future.

ECOS: How do you go about gathering so much information and drawing conclusions with such a wide scope?

KE: The marine chapter is science- and data-driven. We asked our expert assessors (who provided assessments of different elements in the marine environment) to draw on existing data or undertake new data analysis to complete the assessments. The experts from across Australia’s marine science and management community have provided assessments that are now freely available to the public on the Australian Ocean Data Network site. This is a new improvement to the transparency of State of the Environment reporting.

The challenge was taking all these expert assessments and telling the national story about the marine environment as a whole.

ECOS: What are the top 3 changes since the last report covered in your chapter?

KE: This is a hard question, as the answer to this question does depend on your own context, but I can report on three major things that have happened since 2011.

  • We have seen some major climate extremes in the marine environment impacting the east coast, west coast and parts of northern waters of Australia. An example of this occurred in 2015/16 which saw the highest sea-surface temperatures ever recorded on the Great Barrier Reef as a result of increasing water temperatures associated with climate change and a strong El Niño event.
  • There has been an introduction of regulatory reforms across a number of marine sectors including oil and gas, commercial fishing and shipping that have increased scrutiny and drawn focus on environmental sustainability.
  • The full network of Commonwealth marine reserves was announced. Management plans for these areas are currently being revised after going through review process.

Can I have one more?

The east coast population of humpback whales is now estimated to be close to carrying capacity. This represents a recovery of the population and is a wonderful story of success in the marine environment. Our chapter includes more success stories too!

ECOS: What have been some of the developments in technology or methods to improve the science since the last report?

KE: The most significant scientific advancement has been DATA. With thanks to the role of IMOS (Integrated Marine Observing System) and other long-term observation and monitoring programs, we have seen a progressive building of data sets that are long enough for us to actually determine, with confidence, trends in the marine environment. This has been lacking in the past. If we want to continue to provide good science-based State of the Environment reports in the future, we must continue to support those marine data streams.

ECOS: If you were writing the next State of the Environment report, what would you like to see?

KE: Our report identifies four key gaps, that if addressed would substantially improve the next State of the Environment Report. They are:

  • Surprise surprise – DATA! We need to improve data provision and the collection of long-term, national-scale datasets.
  • Attention is needed on a standardised set of marine indicators for monitoring the marine environment.
  • Management of pressures and risks is currently very sector orientated, and doesn’t account for cumulative impacts. We need to think seriously about how to integrate approaches and develop frameworks to address cumulative impacts and manage across marine sectors.
  • We need better risk assessment frameworks, moving from informal assessment to formal, quantitative and transparent assessment that can increase our confidence in reporting.

There is so much great Australian science captured in this report and it is critical that future State of the Environment reports are science and data-driven.

Read the full Marine environment chapter in the 2016 State of the Environment report.

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