October 22, 2013


The implementation of Marine Bioregional Plans, and the ongoing evaluation of the management of the Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network, requires monitoring at a level hitherto unknown in the Australian marine environment, with the notable exception of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The NERP Marine Biodiversity Hub is developing a blueprint for national marine monitoring that will identify the capabilities required to meet this need – and how to use them.

The Australian Government has been investing substantially in marine research capacity over the last 5 years.  The largest two components are $120M for a new Marine National Facility (MNF) and over $100M for the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS). State Governments have also made significant co-investments in many new facilities.

However, Australia’s marine responsibilities are large, covering the third largest EEZ in the world, which is half again as large as our terrestrial territory (excluding Antarctica). The recently declared marine protected area network forms the world’s largest network of marine reserves, covering over 3.1 million km2, or over a third of our EEZ. Only 4.5% of this total area or an average of 12.5% of each marine reserve has been acoustically mapped at sufficient resolution (20 m) to distinguish different habitats.

Increasing our understanding of marine biodiversity conservation and ecosystem health is one of the six “grand challenges” facing Australia according to the Oceans Policy Scientific Assessment Group (OPSAG) in Marine Nation 2025, released earlier this year. This grand challenge includes the need to develop a functional understanding of how marine ecological communities respond to change, the need to develop national efforts in environmental monitoring including ecosystem health, and the need to develop tools to predict the nature and consequences of changes in biodiversity as a result of human intervention.

The Marine Hub is working towards developing a national blueprint for environmental monitoring in Commonwealth waters by working with the Government to clarify monitoring objectives, developing efficient and robust sampling designs, contributing to the standardisation of national data collection and analysis, and working to make this and previously collected information more accessible to managers and policy makers.

But it is clear that increased capacity (and increased access to existing capabilities) will be required to provide quantitative baselines and functional understanding of biodiversity in the unexplored areas of the Commonwealth Marine Reserve network, many of which are in deep water. Quantitative baselines, designed to inform specific scientific and management questions, are the first step in assessing the management performance of the network and other management interventions against their stated objectives.

Some of the capacity for shallow waters can come from citizen volunteers as shown in the Reef Life Survey, and the Marine Hub is already active in building capacity for shelf waters (Oceanic Shoals and Flinders reserve), but deeper waters will require making use of the new Marine National Facility and access to new autonomous underwater vehicles that can explore and monitor deep water reserves in a non-destructive manner. Australian scientists have access to a single AUV through the IMOS AUV facility, but 4 to 6 are needed that can be sequentially deployed in pairs in shelf and deep waters from platforms like the MNF. Analysing the quantity of data that is required to assess management performance will itself require increased scientific capacity and increased automation. 

The Marine Hub and the Department of the Environment are teaming up with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US National Parks Service and the MNF in 2015 for a deep water survey for US warships lost in the WWII Battle of the Coral Sea and the surrounding deepwater environment. WHOI leads the world in efficient deepwater surveys with autonomous and remote vehicles and the Coral Sea survey will set a standard for what we can expect to achieve in deep water monitoring to support the implementation of Marine Bioregional Plans and evaluating effectiveness of the CMR network.


Further reading

Marine Nation 2025 can be downloaded from
Marine bioregional plans can be downloaded from



Access to a small fleet of underwater vehicles such as the WHOI AUVs Sentry (shown on deck) and REMUS (shown in water) will build on the success of our IMOS AUV facility by substantially increasing Australia’s capability and capacity for quantitative environmental survey - including unexplored and deepwater areas of Commonwealth Marine Reserves.  Images courtesy of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution



Prof Nic Bax, University of Tasmania