The role of restoration in conserving matters of national environmental significance in marine and coastal environments

Healthy coastal habitats like seagrass meadows, coastal saltmarsh, kelp forests, coral and shellfish reefs, and mangrove forests (‘blue infrastructure’) are essential to the economic and social well-being of coastal communities. These habitats drive coastal productivity supporting our fisheries and other industries associated with recreation in marine environments, improve water quality, sequester carbon, protect shorelines from erosion, and support thriving biodiversity, including threatened species. These habitats are under pressure from coastal development, climate change, pollution, invasive species and other anthropogenic pressures, which have led to drastic declines in many of our important marine and coastal habitats.

Under the division of powers between the Australian Government and the states under the Australian Constitution, states and territories have the primary responsibility for environmental protection of coastal habitats within three nautical miles of the coastline. The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (C’th) (the EPBC Act) enables the Australian Federal Government to join with the states and territories in providing a national scheme of environment and heritage protection and biodiversity conservation. The EPBC Act focuses Australian Government interests on the protection of nine Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES). These include World Heritage Areas and Ramsar wetlands, threatened and endangered species and habitats, and migratory species protected through international agreements, and Commonwealth Marine Areas.

Given the current state of decline in natural ecosystems, there is a general consensus that there are two paths to conserve critical habitats; habitats can either be protected from extractive or destructive human influences (e.g. through national parks, marine reserves, fishery closures, gear restrictions or riparian conservation), and/or actively rehabilitated towards a preferred healthy state (i.e. restoration). Early environmental conservation was primarily focused on the former of these methods, with the establishment of national parks and conservation areas globally, and sector-based management of remaining pressures. However, despite these intensive interventions, many habitats have continued to decline over the past half century. There is increasing recognition that protection by itself is no longer sufficient and interest and demand for rehabilitation in the form of interventions and restoration has been growing. Restoration is now seen as a key element in achieving conservation and environmental management goals internationally. In recent decades, nations such as the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom have embraced the need for large-scale marine and coastal restoration. Further, restoration also produces economic benefits. For example, restoration activities were recently estimated to contribute almost US$25 billion and 221,000 jobs annually to the United States economy.

In this report we review the state of four ecologically critical coastal marine habitats in Australia; seagrass meadows, kelp forests, shellfish reefs, and coastal saltmarsh wetlands, and evaluate (1) the Commonwealth responsibility for the habitat under the EPBC Act, (2) capacity of habitat restoration to insulate against loss and degradation of MNES, through restoration of key habitats and the species they support, (3) recent advances in restoration with the potential to improve outcomes associated with MNES.

This report demonstrates that each of the four habitats fall under up to six of the nine MNES, by being directly listed as or supporting threatened species or ecosystems, providing habitat for listed migratory species, and being important components of World Heritage Areas, Commonwealth waters, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and Ramsar wetlands. For example, giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) forests are listed as an endangered ecological community; temperate and subtropical saltmarshes are listed as a vulnerable ecological community and three saltmarsh species are listed as vulnerable. In addition, the habitats formed by the two primary reef-forming oyster species are under consideration for listing as endangered ecological communities under the EPBC Act. Coastal saltmarshes provide critical habitat for listed threatened species, such as the green and golden bell frog (Litoria aurea) and the orange-bellied parrot (Neophema chrysogaster), and migratory species such as the eastern curlew (Numenius madagascariensis), the Pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva), the sharp-tailed sandpiper (Calidris acuminata), and the red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis). Seagrass habitats make up a large proportion of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and World Heritage Area and support listed turtle species and dugong. Similarly, kelp forests support a disproportionately high number of endemic species, including several listed under the EPBC At, including the spotted handfish (Brachionichthys hirsutus, critically endangered), red handfish (Thymichthys politus, critically endangered), Ziebell’s handfish (Brachiopsilus ziebelli, vulnerable), black rockcod (Epinephelus daemelii, vulnerable) and members of the Syngnathidae family (seadragons, seahorses and pipefish).

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