Protecting Marine Ecosystems – Coastal Challenges and Community Involvement in South Australia

A variety of factors are causing the decline in coral reef health, from climate change to increasing run-off and herbicides, which impact symbiotic algae and can kill off the reef’s hardy skeletons. These factors also contribute to the formation of oxygen depleted zones.

These marine ecosystems are of profound significance to Indigenous Australians, contain multiple World Heritage sites and support Australia’s rapidly growing blue economy. This horizon scan will look at the role of government in protecting these important ecosystems.

What is a Marine Park?

A marine park is a section of the ocean that is set aside as a protected area to conserve the natural marine environment while also allowing some recreational use. It is essentially a watery version of the national parks on land. Some marine parks are also classed as reserves which offer a higher level of protection for the ecosystem. For example, the Great Barrier Reef is classified as a reserve rather than a marine park and is closed to people unless they are doing research on the corals. Marine parks, on the other hand, usually allow for a range of activities like snorkeling and diving.

Marine and coastal systems face a variety of emerging issues that have the potential to negatively impact marine biodiversity. It is important to identify and raise awareness of these issues at an early stage. In doing so, it is possible to mitigate negative impacts through precautionary principles before they become a significant issue. This is where horizon scans can play a valuable role.

Coastal horizon scans identify emergent issues with the potential to affect the health of marine and coastal ecosystems. These issues are then brought to the attention of scientists, conservation practitioners and policymakers. The aim is to encourage further research and development into these issues, as well as to develop appropriate policies to manage their effects.

The South Australian Coastal Horizon Scans identified a number of key issues for the state’s coast, including climate change, sustainable land and sea-based tourism, marine debris, water quality, and the impact of invasive species. The horizon scans were informed by one of the largest public consultation programs in state history, as well as expert advice from local and state advisory groups and YourSAy.

Protecting the marine environment requires a holistic approach that addresses all aspects of coastal management and planning. This includes managing tidal lands and waters for ecologically sustainable utilisation and management, and promoting the social, cultural, spiritual, economic and heritage values of the region. It is also necessary to consider how climate change will impact the coastal zone, and ensure that mitigation and adaptation strategies are embedded in all policies.

What are the Coastal Challenges?

Coastal marine environments are under increasing pressure from human activities. Many of these activities contribute to habitat degradation and the loss of valuable economic and environmental resources. Coastal habitats are also under threat from the effects of climate change and sea level rise.

The oceans and coastline provide vital natural habitat for biodiversity. Coral reefs, for example, host more than a million species of animals and plants and are an important source of food and other resources for people living around them in over 100 countries. They are major storehouses of carbon and play an important role in regulating the ocean’s water quality, shoreline protection and weather patterns.

While some areas of the coastline are experiencing rapid deterioration, others are stable or growing. Coastal erosion rates are influenced by the size and density of human settlements, soil conditions and the amount of wave-absorbing material at a site. Some coastal environments are also affected by climate changes such as warming ocean temperatures, higher storm surges and a decrease in rainfall.

Other threats to coastal ecosystems include land clearing, pollution, waste disposal and sedimentation. Industrial development and coastal aquaculture can also cause disturbance to marine environments. Many of these activities take place in estuaries and near ports. Major industries that contribute to the degrading of coastal environments include iron ore smelting and processing, paper mills, vehicle factories, power plants (coal, oil gas and nuclear) and shipping.

The resulting habitat degradation, erosion and loss of natural resources can have a devastating impact on local communities. It is essential that coastal communities have access to adequate financial, social and technical support in order to manage these resources sustainably.

Managing the conservation of marine ecosystems and their benefits to people requires an integrated approach that is aligned with regional and national policy and legislation. This involves involving the community in decision-making, problem-solving and implementation of projects and programmes.

The South Australian Marine Parks Network protects vast expanses of wild and beautiful coastline, including rocky reefs, mangrove forests, wetlands and giant kelp forests. The parks are home to endangered southern right whales, humpback whales, Australian sea lions, western blue groper and numerous other marine creatures. The Nuyts Archipelago and West Coast Bays Marine Parks also protect the world-class nursery grounds of the critically endangered whale shark, once hunted to the brink of extinction by the whaling industry.

What are the Community Involvement Challenges?

Marine ecosystems are critically important to the health of our nation, yet are often overlooked in environmental policy and management. A broad and deep understanding of the marine environment is needed to foster ocean stewardship that promotes biodiversity conservation (Evans and Cvitanovic 2019). Achieving global ocean literacy demands improving social engagement with marine issues. This requires enhancing peoples’ knowledge and connection to the ocean, which can increase motivation for behaviour change and support for solutions that reduce human impacts on marine environments and resources (Mogias et al. 2019).

This is especially true for young people, whose perception of ocean awareness and understanding appears to be increasing as a result of adopting ocean literacy curricula in schools and youth groups, as well as increased media coverage of marine issues (Lee et al. 2019). Nonetheless, it is unrealistic and unfair to assume that future generations will be solely responsible for protecting the ocean. All levels of society must take responsibility for the sustainable use and conservation of marine ecosystems (Evans and Cvitanovic 2017).

The recent establishment in South Australia of a network of 19 marine parks covering expansive seascapes of diverse temperate habitats, including seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, rocky reefs, and nationally significant wetlands, is an opportunity to protect these precious natural assets. These safe havens will enable the restoration of healthy fish stocks and marine ecosystems, while ensuring their viability into the future.

However, the success of these new marine parks will depend on the support of the local communities who will be impacted by changes to their livelihoods. This will require addressing barriers to community involvement in marine park management, including establishing mechanisms for engagement and facilitating participation, and implementing strategies for building resilience of local coastal communities.

In addition, policies governing marine park management need to be consistent with the principles of ecologically sustainable development and ensure that they address the impact of climate change on the ocean (Stoll-Kleemann and Evans-Richardson 2019). Lastly, efforts should be made to integrate coastal protection and climate change mitigation/adaptation initiatives into one integrated strategy. The recent Australian government horizon scan identified many emerging issues that will impact marine and coastal biodiversity, but most have not yet gained prominence in the policy arena (Evans and Cvitanovic). This highlights the need to engage with communities early on to raise awareness of these issues and ensure that they are addressed in the context of broader environmental and economic policy.

What are the Solutions?

The health of coastal and marine ecosystems is critical to human well-being, climate change adaptation and biodiversity conservation. However, these systems are under severe pressure. Population growth in coastal areas, urban development, water-based recreation and agriculture all put stress on marine and coastal ecosystems. Overfishing is also a major issue. The more we deplete marine species, the less biodiversity we have to provide for food, shelter and economic value.

Increasing marine and coastal restoration efforts is essential. This will have many benefits including reducing erosion, restoring water quality, creating habitat for threatened and migratory species, sequestering carbon for climate mitigation and improving resilience to a changing climate. It’s important to find the right mix of social and environmental benefits for a particular project, so that it will be widely supported by local communities.

South Australia is one of the leaders in marine and coastal restoration. A growing number of seagrass beds, kelp forests, shellfish reefs and mangroves are being restored around the state. However, these projects face a variety of challenges, including legislative barriers, which can result in unanticipated costs and delays in the start date of a project.

Another challenge is that people are not fully aware of the importance of a healthy coastline. This may mean that they are not making the right decisions about their behaviour or activities and how they impact on the environment.

A further problem is that coastal ecosystems are highly interconnected. They often depend on each other for critical services, such as the conversion of organic material into carbon dioxide for marine plants to photosynthesise, and the control of prey populations by sharks or fisheries. If a key service is removed, other marine organisms will struggle to carry it out and could even become extinct.

In addition, coastal development needs to be carefully planned and managed. Unfortunately, many coastal settlements were established in low-lying areas and are exposed to the potential impacts of climate change, such as sea level rise and higher tides. Furthermore, many coastal communities have a long history of building homes and shacks close to the beach, which puts them at risk from coastal erosion.