Victoria’s marine and coastal environments (which include our coastline, bays, and coastal lakes such as the Gippsland Lakes) are home to more than 12,000 plant and animal species, many not found anywhere else in the world. But these environments are facing many threats, including population growth and urbanisation, commercial and recreational fishing, invasive species and droughts and floods.

What the indicators tell us

Many of the indicators are divided into different regions, making it difficult to give a statewide picture. For example, seagrass condition is different for the regions where it is measured – fair in Gippsland Lakes and Corner Inlet, and good in Port Phillip Bay. Overall, there are more good and fair indicators than poor.

Themes and indicators: How does Victoria measure up?

Coastal wetlands and estuaries

There are at least 16 coastal wetland EVCs, of which the most common and spatially extensive are: mangrove shrubland (EVC 140), coastal saltmarsh (EVC 9), estuarine wetland (EVC 10), brackish grassland (EVC 934), brackish wetland (EVC 656), seagrass meadows (EVC 845) and saline aquatic meadow (EVC 854).

The most recent inventory of coastal wetlands estimated there were 19,212 hectares of coastal saltmarsh, 5,177 hectares of mangroves and 3,227 hectares of estuarine wetland along the Victorian coastline. Of these, 218 hectares of mangroves and 6,390 hectares of coastal saltmarsh were on private land.

Six areas of coastal wetlands in Victoria have been listed under the Ramsar Convention: Corner Inlet (including Nooramunga) (67,186 hectares), Edithvale–Seaford Wetlands (262 hectares), Gippsland Lakes (60,015 hectares), Glenelg Estuary and Discovery Bay (22,289 hectares), Port Phillip Bay (Western Shoreline) and Bellarine Peninsula (22,897 hectares) and Western Port (59,297 hectares).

There has been growing scientific interest in the monitoring and assessment of estuary condition in Victoria’s more than 100 estuaries since the release of the National Land and Water Resources Audit of 2002, and the subsequent development of the Index of Estuarine Condition in Victoria, due for release in 2020 and based on five themes: physical form, hydrology, water quality, flora and fauna. Even so, saline coastal wetlands and estuaries remain very poorly studied habitats in south-eastern Australia.

Rises in sea level, carbon dioxide, air and water temperatures and increased storm intensity, along with changing rainfall patterns and wave regimes, will each impact on coastal wetlands already affected by population growth and its associated coastal development, land reclamation and levee bank construction.

This section reviews indicators for mangroves, saltmarsh, seagrass, seagrass-dependent fish and estuaries.

Intertidal and subtidal reefs

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/commissariat/

The intertidal and subtidal reefs in Victoria’s coastal waters support a diverse and colourful range of marine plants and animals. Intertidal reefs are popular with people who enjoy rock-pool rambling, while subtidal reefs are a magnet for divers and snorkellers and also a focus for black lip abalone (Haliotis rubra) and greenlip abalone (Haliotis laevigata) fishery.

On rocky shores in the intertidal zone, and for the seaweeds, molluscs, worms, sea squirts, crabs and other animals and plants living there, the environment is constantly changing due to tidal and wave action. Some species are mobile and move across the rocks while others are sessile (stationary). On the deeper subtidal reefs, seaweeds such as bull kelp provide shelter for reef fish and rock lobsters, and the rocky surfaces are grazed by abalone and sea urchins.

This section assesses the status of invertebrates, fish and macroalgae that are found on Victoria’s reefs.

Seabirds, shorebirds and waterbirds

Seabirds, shorebirds and waterbirds are the most visible elements of marine and coastal animal life. Albatrosses, pelicans, penguins, spoonbills, sandpipers, hooded plovers and other birds rely on healthy marine and coastal environments, some for feeding and others for breeding. Trends in their numbers and distribution can provide important data for agencies responsible for habitat management and species conservation.

Reduced bird numbers may indicate a change in the availability of prey species, perhaps due to fishing pressure, climate change or catchment-based water pollution. Declining populations may also suggest the loss or degradation of their habitat in Victoria or elsewhere. Conserving their habitat in Victoria can provide refuges for bird species suffering habitat loss in other parts of their range.

Photo: https://www.flickr.com/photos/andrew_arch/

To support the conservation of threatened international migratory species that visit each year, Australia has signed a number of international agreements that it must uphold, while resident threatened birds are listed under various statutes that require species conservation measures.

This section reviews indicators for migratory shorebirds, penguins, fish-eating birds and waterbirds.

Pressures

Victoria’s marine and coastal environments face many pressures, the major ones having been outlined at the beginning of this chapter. They include coastal and catchment development, population growth, water pollution, fisheries, invasive and overabundant species, and climate change. This section assesses a brief list of pressure indicators, which could be reviewed and expanded on for the State of the Marine and Coastal Environment 2021 report. The State of the Bays 2016 report included a number of water quality indicators for Port Phillip Bay and Western Port. These have not been reproduced here.

Indicator

Catchment inputs into coastal waters

Status

  • Mixed

Trend

Mixed

Data quality

Mixed

Poor in Western Port, Glenelg Catchment Management Authority, Port Phillip and Westernport Catchment Management Authority. Fair in Port Phillip Bay. Fair in Corangamite Catchment Management Authority, West Gippsland Catchment Management Authority. Good in East Gippsland Catchment Management Authority.

Data custodian: 

DELWP Catchments, Waterways, Cities and Towns Environment Protection Authority; Catchment management authorities

 

Conservation in protected areas

In its 2017 Catchment Condition and Management Report, the VCMC was unable to make any sound assessment of the condition of coasts and marine areas, due to lack of information. The report also noted that for coasts, monitoring of their condition is still very fragmented, focused on specific locations or issues. VCMC has used regional information to make a general assessment of the condition of coasts as ‘declining’ over the past 20 years.

The criterion used by the Council to assess the condition of coasts was mangrove and saltmarsh protection. This statewide report also noted coastal condition assessments made by some of the CMAs with coastal boundaries, which used the level of protection for coasts as their criteria. The Glenelg Hopkins CMA rated its coast as ‘generally poor’ and coastal vegetation as ‘largely fragmented’. For the East Gippsland CMA, its coast was rated as in a ‘stable’ condition. The Corangamite CMA coast was assessed as ‘moderate’ to ‘good’ but in decline.

The VCMC report and the assessments by regional catchment authorities raises the issue of protection levels for mangrove and saltmarsh. In this section, that is broadened to consider the protection status for coastal EVCs and the five marine bioregions.

Assessing the status of the marine conservation estate can be done in several ways. One is to measure the estate against international benchmarks for levels of protection, such as those of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, the Convention on Biological Diversity’s Aichi Targets, the Millennium Development Goals (now superseded by the Sustainable Development Goals), or targets established by the World Parks Congress and the IUCN World Conservation Congress. A second way of assessing the status of the marine conservation estate is to measure it against the CAR Principles of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness (the CAR Principles), which together have provided the foundation for the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas. The Australian, all states and Northern Territory governments have together committed to its completion.

There have been no new marine or coastal conservation areas proclaimed since the 2008 State of the Environment report, and with the exception of cetaceans, seabirds, Australian fur seals and other charismatic fauna, there has been limited monitoring of threatened species within existing areas.

Actions to conserve marine and coastal ecosystems are not confined to protected areas, although they are a most effective way of conserving biodiversity and are the focus of this section. For example, the Victorian Coastal Strategy 2014 provides guidance for agencies and statutory decision-making along the Victorian coast and in marine environments, with a primary principle to ensure the protection of significant environmental and cultural values. The new Marine and Coastal Act 2018 and its associated policy and strategy (in preparation) aims to support this. There is a range of management tools that can – and are – used to address threats to the marine habitats which are important for fishing and other values. These include reducing and intercepting catchment pollution and agricultural runoff; preventing marine pest introductions; giving protection to individual species such as blue groper; and restricting the take of species of stingrays, skates and guitar fish.

More detail

Background

Massive sand dunes bookend the Victorian coastline at its borders with South Australia and New South Wales. Connecting Discovery Bay in the west to the east’s Cape Howe Wilderness Zone are 2,500 km of rock stacks, granite islands, sheer cliffs, intertidal platforms, dominant headlands, extensive mudflats, fringing saltmarsh and mangroves, sandy beaches, large bays, coastal lagoons and more than 100 estuaries.

Facing south, Victoria’s coastline looks out on the cool temperate waters of the Southern Ocean where 75% of red algae species, 85% of fish species and 95% of seagrass species are found nowhere else, giving them local, national and international significance. Beneath Victoria’s 10,000 km2 of coastal waters are subtidal reefs, deep canyons, seagrass meadows, sponge gardens and sandy and muddy seabeds that support a rich marine life of more than 12,000 plant and animal species.

The Victorian Government and local governments have worked to improve marine and coastal planning, protection and management through the following processes: legislation, regulation, institutional policy setting, strategic and statutory planning, and the creation of conservation reserves. Local communities have also engaged in consultation, monitoring and habitat-restoration works. But the pressures on coastal and marine environments have continued to build, largely driven by the resource-intensive demands of population growth and climate change.

The success or otherwise of these responses have in recent years been measured by State of the Environment reports in 2008 and 2013, the State of the Bays 2016 report, and the Gippsland Lakes Condition Report 2018. This chapter builds on the research and evaluation of these earlier reports while also looking towards 2021 (when the first of five-yearly State of the Marine and Coastal Environment reports will be released) and 2030 (the time horizon of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals targets).

Current Victorian Government Settings

There have been many efforts by successive Victorian governments to improve marine and coastal planning, protection and management. This section briefly reviews the most recent.

Victoria’s new Marine and Coastal Act 2018 (the Act) provides improved governance and oversight of the marine and coastal environment and will aim to:

  • establish an integrated and coordinated whole-of-government approach to protect and manage Victoria’s marine and coastal environment

  • provide for integrated and coordinated policy, planning, management, decision-making and reporting across catchment, coastal and marine areas

  • establish objectives and guiding principles for ecologically sustainable planning, management and decision-making.

Recognising the need to plan for and manage the impacts of climate change is a significant addition to coastal management in Victoria – as is the acknowledgement of Traditional Owner groups’ knowledge, rights and aspirations for land and sea country.

Under the Act, the number of advisory bodies has been simplified by phasing out the regional coastal boards and Victorian Coastal Council and establishing the statewide advisory Marine and Coastal Council. The Council will be responsible for providing advice on the implementation of the Act by agencies including the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) and will be able to establish subcommittees – for example a science panel.

The Act establishes statutory documents for planning and management of the marine and coastal environment at the statewide, regional and local levels. This includes the preparation of a Marine and Coastal Policy and a Marine and Coastal Strategy every five years by DELWP. These both require agreement across relevant portfolios and are intended to help deal with key challenges such as the impacts of climate change and population growth. The policy will include a marine spatial planning framework to help achieve integrated and coordinated planning and management of the marine environment.

The new legislation requires that a State of the Marine and Coastal Environment report be prepared every five years by the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, with the first due in 2021. This report will monitor trends in a variety of indicators to help measure the condition of the marine and coastal environment and any changes over time. This information will be used to better inform ecologically sustainable policy, planning and decision-making.

The Act introduces a new partnership approach for planning for significant regional issues impacting the marine and coastal environment. Regional and strategic partnerships (RASPs) will be formed in certain areas, and they will produce tools to address regional issues. Tools may include coastal hazard assessments, adaptation plan or other regional plans. Importantly, these partnerships can formally include community and non-government members to boost public involvement.

Environmental management plans will consider a broad range of threats to the health of the marine environment and aim to identify actions to fix them. Catchment management authorities (CMAs) are also now required to better plan for impacts on the marine and coastal environment through Regional Catchment Strategies, and possibly RASPs.

Local-level planning will provide opportunities for the community’s voice to be heard and the government anticipates a more streamlined process for consents to use, develop or undertake works on public land.

The new Act also aims to help address a key technical gap by enabling organisations advising on coastal flooding (namely, coastal CMAs and Melbourne Water) to be consulted on matters relating to coastal erosion.

The Victorian Environmental Assessment Council (VEAC) is currently preparing a report on the environmental, economic and social values of Victoria’s marine environments that will inform the Victorian Government’s preparation of the statewide marine and coastal policy and marine spatial planning framework under the Marine and Coastal Act 2018. VEAC is also investigating coastal reserves and will:

  • review the number and types (reservation status) of coastal reserves in Victoria

  • identify reserves with high environmental, cultural heritage, social and economic values and identify values at risk from the impacts of climate change

  • identify current and emerging uses of the coastal reserves

  • compile an inventory, including spatial distribution, of values and uses of the coastal reserves.

A revised State Environment Protection Policy (Waters) commenced on 19 October 2018. The purpose of this new policy is to provide a framework to protect and improve the quality of Victoria’s waters, while its objectives are to:

  • achieve the level of environmental quality required to support the beneficial uses of waters

  • ensure that pollution to waters from both diffuse and point sources is managed in an integrated way to deliver the best outcome for the community as a whole

  • protect and improve environmental quality through consistent, equitable and proportionate regulatory decisions that focus on outcomes and use the best available information.

The policy also includes various environmental quality indicators, regional targets and priority areas, pollutant load reduction targets, and rules and obligations. It also identifies high conservation value areas: high value wetlands (including wetlands of international importance listed under Ramsar) and areas of significance for spawning, nursery, breeding, roosting and feeding areas of aquatic species and fauna.

The vision for the Port Phillip Bay Environmental Management Plan 20172027 is of a ‘healthy Port Phillip Bay that is valued and cared for by all Victorians’. This 2017 plan replaced the 2001 plan and contains a broader set of priorities and actions. The seven priorities are: connect and inspire, empower action, nutrients and pollutants, litter, pathogens (human health), habitats and marine life, and marine biosecurity.

Victoria’s Climate Change Adaptation Plan 20172020 will build a detailed understanding of the state’s exposure to climate change risks and impacts, catalyse partnerships for integrated and effective responses and tackle immediate priorities to reduce climate change risks. The plan will work to ensure up-to-date information on the coastal impacts of climate change, provide guidance to managers on coastal adaptation, ensure sea-level-rise benchmarks are based on the best science and provide resourcing through the Climate-Ready Victorian Infrastructure – Critical Coastal Protection Assets Program (2015–2019), which includes works to repair, renew and protect cliffs, seawalls and groynes across the state. Local Coastal Hazard Assessments will also be used to provide a more detailed analysis of climate change risks and impacts.

The Invasive Plants and Animals Policy Framework (IPAPF) presents the overarching Victorian Government approach to the management of existing and potential invasive species. The IPAPF incorporates a biosecurity approach to ensure that Victoria maintains a comprehensive planning framework to guide the management of invasive species. The Department of Economic Development, Jobs, Transport and Resources is developing a whole-of-government marine pest module under the IPAPF to guide the management of marine pests in the state. The scope of this module will encompass exotic invasive marine plants, marine algae, marine invertebrate animals and marine fish.

The Victorian Waterway Management Strategy addresses:

  • the direct management of estuaries, for example the use of risk-based assessments (such as the Estuary Entrance Management Support System) to inform artificial estuary openings

  • the management of upstream waters and their catchments and associated inputs to estuaries and coastal environments – through, for example, riparian revegetation and stock exclusion delivered through the Victorian Waterway Management Program and initiatives such as the Regional Riparian Action Plan.

The Parks Victoria Act 1998 was reviewed and then replaced with the Parks Victoria Act 2018. The new Act establishes Parks Victoria as an independent statutory authority, no longer acting as a service agency to government and with management powers granted to its board rather than delegated by the secretary of DELWP. The Act aims to strengthen Parks Victoria’s role of protecting, conserving and enhancing Victoria’s parks and waterways.

In 2017, the Victorian Government established the Victorian Fisheries Authority to support the development of recreational and commercial fishing and aquaculture in Victoria, regulate fisheries and provide advice to government on a range of fisheries management opportunities.

The 2021 State of the Marine and Coastal Environment report will be able to evaluate the implementation of these polices, strategies and plans.

Future Focus

A Marine and Coastal Knowledge Framework

The key recommendation of the State of the Bays 2016 was the Marine Knowledge Framework to establish a mechanism for “addressing knowledge gaps, reducing uncertainties and forming the future evidence base for assessing management interventions and environmental outcomes”. DELWP has begun the development of the Marine Knowledge Framework, which is specific to marine science in Western Port and Port Phillip Bay.

In preparation for the State of the Marine and Coastal Environment 2021 report, the framework needs to be expanded to include:

  • the development and implementation of a marine and coastal knowledge strategy with clear goals, actions, outcomes, timelines and evaluation that integrates agency and academic research, citizen science and Traditional Owner ecological knowledge

  • a comprehensive review of marine and coastal indicators, with the data needs of the indicators given priority in data collection, analysis and reporting, and the indicators measured regularly to identify trends

  • measurement of ecological function, condition and changes in marine and coastal ecosystems (including the 95% of coastal waters outside parks and sanctuaries that are rarely monitored)

  • the distribution of marine species responding to climate change

  • marine and coastal attitudes, perceptions of, and connections for, Victorians (through polling)

  • the ecological impacts of commercial and recreational fisheries

  • impacts of coastal urbanisation, development, population growth and increasing number of visitors to the coast

  • water quality along the open coast.

Recommendation: That DELWP expand the Marine Knowledge Framework to include all State marine and coastal environments.

UN Environmental Economic Accounts

Coastal and marine accounts can be used to assess the socio-economic benefits coastal and marine ecosystems provide to Victoria, such as recreation, tourism, aquaculture and protection of coastal built and natural assets.

Coastal and marine accounts can be linked to land accounts, water accounts and waste (residual flow) accounts to enhance understanding of the links between asset management in catchment areas and the marine environment. By linking economic activity associated with land use in catchments – via water and waste accounts – to the condition of coastal and marine ecosystems, it is possible to build a more comprehensive picture of the impact of land use (see land accounts discussion in the Land section) on ecosystem services and benefits.

Coastal and marine ecosystems provide a wide range of ecosystem services. The quantity of ecosystem services produced is dependent on the extent and condition of ecosystem assets. The extent and condition of coastal and marine assets is impacted by a range of factors including climate change, flows of nutrients, sediments, toxicants and pathogens from catchments, and invasive species.

Case studies

Hungry urchins

Sea urchins are threatening seagrass meadows, which are vitally important for local marine life and our coastal ecosystems.

Why underwater meadows matter

South Gippsland’s Nooramunga Marine and Coastal Park, just to the east of Wilsons Prom, is the only place in Victoria with large, unbroken areas of seagrass meadows. These meadows of the seagrass Posidonia australis are feeding grounds and breeding areas for local marine life. The meadows also store carbon and help prevent coastal erosion. Their importance is one of the reasons the Corner Inlet area is recognised in the international wetland conservation treaty, the Ramsar Convention.

The urchins move in

Unfortunately, the seagrass has become a favourite food of Purple Urchins (Heliocidaris erythrogramma), which usually live on rocky reefs rather than in grassy meadows. The urchin populations exploded, and ate so much seagrass that they created large areas of bare sand with no grass, or very little grass that is often shorter than it should be. These bare patches are called barrens.

No-one yet knows exactly why the urchins moved into the area and created these barrens. And because urchin barrens are unusual, with only three reported cases in Australia and only 20 in the world, there aren’t any tried and tested ways to deal with them.

Battling the barrens

Knowing they had to find a way to control the urchins to protect the seagrass, Parks Victoria surveyed the marine park between 2014 and 2016 and found such large populations of urchins they decided on a cull.

In 2017, snorkellers from Parks Victoria and Fisheries Victoria, supported by volunteers, removed 58,000 urchins by hand from two chosen sites. This successful cull has decreased urchin populations by 99.32% at one site and 80.42% at the other. Most importantly, seagrass has started to regrow.

An ongoing control program coordinated by Parks Victoria will see the team continue to monitor the seagrass and sea urchins to battle the barrens. 

Discover more

What killed Mallacoota’s fish?

Was water quality or a sudden drop in ocean temperature the reason thousands of dead fish washed up on beaches in East Gippsland in March 2017?

Understanding a fish kill

The sudden and unexpected death of masses of fish is known as a fish kill. In March 2017 there was a fish kill in far eastern Victoria, stretching from just south of Mallacoota up to the NSW border. Most of the dead fish were leatherjackets, but other species of fish, as well as sea urchins and even some penguins, were found dead as well.

The fish kill happened at the same time as a 7°C drop in the surface water temperature of the ocean, and the appearance of algae in the water.

Solving the mystery

This change in temperature and the appearance of algae was probably due to an upwelling. An upwelling occurs when water from the bottom of the ocean is brought to the surface by currents and winds. The water from the deep is much colder than the surface water, and has more nutrients. The north-eastern corner of Bass Strait frequently experiences upwellings.

Algal blooms can decrease the level of oxygen in the water and in some case create toxins. Both the reduced oxygen and the toxins can kill fish.

With disease seeming an unlikely cause, the most probable explanation is that water quality, water temperature, or a combination of both caused the fish and penguin deaths.

Changing currents

Changes to the East Australian Current appear to have contributed to a stronger than usual upwelling and more dramatic changes in temperature. The East Australia Current now runs further south than it used to, and is more intense.

The current has been affected by climate change, and projections show that the oceans in south-eastern Australia will have the greatest increases in sea temperature in our region. This may cause further changes to the current, resulting in more frequent and intense upwellings in the future.

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