The Midway Point:
how far have we come?

The NMSC released the National Marine Science Plan 2015­–2025: The Midway Point in November 2021.

We drew on the interdisciplinary breadth and expertise of our members and the wider marine science community to develop it.

This report is both a review of the National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 and a renewed clarion call for the marine science community, industry and government to drive the blue economy’s development and fulfil its prosperity potential.

And it comes at a time when the recovery, resilience and long-term health of Australia’s marine environment, economy and community have never been more important.

The Midway Point assesses how far we’ve come and what is still required. It highlights  how we can build on the National Marine Science Plan’s roadmap for the long-term health and wealth of Australia’s marine environment, economy and people.

The report also identifies emerging priorities that will address gaps in knowledge, infrastructure and capabilities, and re-prioritise the initial recommendations.

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Report card: successes and next steps

The Midway Point tracks the progress of the Plan’s eight recommendations from 2015–2020 via a report card, and highlights next steps.

Of the original recommendations, two are at an early stage, four are underway and two are at maturity.

Green dot
Orange dot
Red dot

Mature: the recommendation has a clear-use case, user base and role supporting marine science and the blue economy

Underway: the recommendation has a clear forward trajectory

Early stage: the recommendation is still immature and a clear forward plan has yet to be established

Recommendation 1: Create an explicit focus on the blue economy throughout the marine science system

Status

Underway

Progress update

The blue economy is now an integral element in the organisational strategy of most Australian marine science agencies, and many universities engaged in marine science and research.

By 2018, the blue economy was contributing 338,974 jobs and $69.2 billion to the Australian economy, which represented 3.7 per cent of GDP. That same year, the output of the blue economy’s industries was valued at $81.2 billion, a substantial increase from $63.6 billion in 2016.

In recognition of its value to Australia, the Australian Government funded the Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre in 2019.

Key next steps

  • Use science to underpin future food and offshore energy production, transport, marine security and urban coastal development.
  • Develop integrated systems where the blue economy focus is broadened to include community wellbeing through the use of sociocultural data.
  • Recognise the blue economy as an important plank of post-COVID economic recovery and resilience-building.
  • Remain committed to the delivery of The Paris Agreement and use the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development to guide and drive Australia’s own sustainability efforts.
Recommendation 2: Establish and support a national marine baseline and long-term monitoring program to develop a comprehensive assessment of our estate and help inform management of Commonwealth and State Marine Parks

 Status

Underway

Progress update

Baseline progress includes high-resolution mapping of another 15 per cent of the seabed of the mainland Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and 10 per cent of the Australian Antarctic Territory. It also includes the launch of the AusSeabed initiative to assist coordination of future efforts.

Through the State and Trends of Australia's Oceans Report, IMOS made available 27 time-series datasets for key ocean variables measured over 10 years.

The Australia–NZ International Ocean Discovery Program Consortium (ANZIC) facilitated eight International Ocean Discovery Program expeditions in our region, enabling world-class research into natural hazards, past climate and resource evolution in key Australian regions.

National guidelines, released through the National Environmental Science Program (NESP), AusSeabed and IMOS, are now facilitating the consistent collection and publication of data for national comparisons and syntheses.

The launch of the Western Australian Index of Marine Surveys for Assessment program will see more industry data openly available and provide a case study for national-scale implementation.

A summary of the latest data on Australian marine systems was released through the Australian State of the Environment 2016 (SoE) report. The NMSC also completed a national audit of marine baseline and monitoring programs. A draft report outlining the results, critical gaps and the scope to establish a national program is being finalised.

Key next steps

  • Identify investment and coordination priorities for baseline and monitoring programs, including opportunities for participation by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Traditional Owners and citizen scientists.
  • Establish a governance framework that includes relevant state and territory government agencies, universities, Indigenous organisations and industry to advance a national approach to marine baselines and monitoring. This includes the development and implementation of national guidelines for data collection, management, sharing and delivery.
  • Establish a national mandate with appropriate oversight and coordination mechanisms to build on established regional, national and international monitoring programs. Ensure links with existing research and infrastructure programs.
Recommendation 3: Facilitate coordinated national studies on marine system processes and resilience to enable understanding of the impacts of development and climate change on our marine estate

Status

Underway

Progress update

The NMSC completed the guidelines and investment rationale for the development of a national framework for experimental and process studies of marine systems. These are crucial to our understanding of system-wide processes and impacts.

This approach was implemented for the first time at a regional level via the Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP). However, challenges remain in resourcing and delivery of national, integrated studies at appropriate scales.

Likewise, as identified in the SoE 2016 report, a key gap remains in understanding and quantifying cumulative impacts. Several research projects have focused on this topic, including the Great Australian Bight Research Program (GABRP)

Key next steps

  • Implement coordinated experimental programs, and build on the success of RRAP and GABRP, for other threatened coastal systems (e.g. kelp forests and oyster reefs) and key offshore ecosystems (e.g. Perth Canyon, Gulf of Carpentaria, Tasmantid Seamount Chain and the Coral Sea).
  • For coastal systems, resolve political and jurisdictional issues constraining implementation of programs to ensure key multi-jurisdictional ecosystems are understood and managed coherently at local, regional and national scales.
  • Establish national and international frameworks that enable formal assessment of cumulative impacts on the resilience and dynamics of marine ecosystems (e.g. as part of the UN Decade of Ocean Science).
Recommendation 4: Create a national oceanographic modelling system to provide the accurate, detailed data and predictions of ocean state that are required by defence, industry and government

Status

Early stage

Progress update

The Australian Coastal and Oceans Modelling and Observations Working Group has been established to tackle various impediments to a comprehensive modelling system. The group has set up a forum for sharing ideas and building collaboration.

Australia has strong ocean modelling capabilities across multiple institutions, including in the tertiary sector. The Bluelink modelling system delivers freely available, daily ocean forecasts. However, there is still no national capability for coastal regions, which remains an important priority.

Several coastal system models are routinely run to provide information to industry and government decision-makers (e.g. eReefs for the Great Barrier Reef). However, most of these do not yet assimilate ocean observations and have no biogeochemical component. Moreover, data from these models are not freely available.

Key next steps

  • Identify investment to deliver a national coastal modelling capability.
  • Improve coordination across multiple stakeholders and engage with them to co-design a business case for a national coastal modelling system focused on end-user requirements.
  • Identify ways to address the lack of adequate coastal observations.
Recommendation 5: Develop a dedicated and coordinated science program to support decision-making by
policy-makers and industry

Status

Early stage

Progress update

The NMSC is currently evaluating the use of an Integrated Ecosystem Assessment (IEA) approach in Australia, which is considered world’s best practice for resource allocation and would support better decision-making processes.

This system-wide framework encompasses the natural parts of ecosystems, as well as social, cultural and economic considerations. 

Key next steps

  • Develop a national pilot project to apply an IEA approach at four trial sites: NSW Marine Estate, Victorian outer coast, Spencer Gulf SA, and Northern Seascapes, NT.
  • Develop new and effective mechanisms to communicate the latest marine science for meaningful use by Australia’s policy-makers and decision-makers.
  • Establish mechanisms to assess this program’s impact on decision-making by policy-makers and industry.
Recommendation 6: Sustain and expand IMOS to support critical climate change and coastal systems research that includes coverage of key estuarine systems

Status

Mature

Progress update

IMOS, funded through the Australian Government’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), is now supported until 2023.

This funding enables marine infrastructure investment decisions to be made on appropriate time scales and with a level of certainty that ensures a good return on investment.

IMOS has extended its focus into marine ecological monitoring, and expanded its links to industry and government.

Maturity of the program is enabling a sharper focus on delivering information on impacts to stakeholders. This includes delivery via the Fisheries Research and Development Corporation (FRDC) and establishment of the Forum for Operational Oceanography (FOO).

These relationships are driving closer collaboration between industries, government and the research community.

Key next steps

  • Expand IMOS into coastal and estuarine systems.
  • Continue to expand ecological monitoring and exploration of new sensor technologies that lower the cost per observation.
  • Ensure ongoing support for IMOS beyond 2023.
Recommendation 7: Develop marine science research training that is more quantitative, cross-disciplinary and congruent with the needs of industry and government

Status

Underway

Progress update

The NMSC completed an extensive national and cross-sector assessment of Australian university postgraduate training programs and the requirements and needs of employers in marine industries. 

The results of this assessment are provided in the report, Improving Australia’s marine science Postgraduate Training System to meet the needs of the ‘blue economy.' It includes a series of outcomes and recommendations.

These include enabling aspiring marine scientists to gain deep expertise in at least two disciplines prioritised by employers. It also and offering Masters coursework programs that are cross-disciplinary and problem-focused.

The outcomes and recommendations of the report are actively being discussed with Australian tertiary institutions.

Key next steps

  • Engage with key peak bodies in academia and industry regarding outcomes of the report.
  • Implement recommendations, including identification of the constraints to serving the needs of industry.
  • Establish communication and extension activities through the Australian Marine Sciences Association and other bodies to ensure changes based on the recommendations occur by 2025.
Recommendation 8: Fund national research vessels for full use

Status

Mature

Progress update

Australia’s research vessel capacity has increased due to investment from the Australian Government and the coordinated efforts of NMSC members.

Key successes include the replacement of the RSV Aurora Australis with a new national icebreaker RSV Nuyina, scheduled to commence service in 2021; the operation of RV Investigator for a full 300 days per year from 2018–2022 (excluding a 2020 hiatus due to COVID-19); the operation of coastal research vessels such as the RV Cape Ferguson and RV Solander; a scoping study for a national coastal research fleet supported through NCRIS; and an increased focus on coordination across research vessel operators.

Key next steps

  • Continue to prosecute the case for:
    • securing funding to maintain ongoing operations of RV Investigator for 300 days per year beyond 2022, and to ensure it is a state-of-the-art research platform
    • establishing a national coastal research fleet
    • establishing a coordinating committee for national research vessels to maximise investments.

Building resilience and preparedness:
additional recommendations

Since 2015, the scale and speed of environmental, social and economic changes, and their impacts on the marine estate, have highlighted the need to double down and build on the Plan’s original eight recommendations.

These changes include accelerating climate change, pollution, demographic change, loss of biodiversity and habitat, aging or outdated marine and coastal infrastructure, and biosecurity threats. The COVID-19 pandemic has also driven a broader need for economic and social recovery, resilience-building and preparedness against future shocks.

The Midway Point has identified three new recommendations to develop and refine marine science’s foundational elements and activities.

NMSP_MWP_MichelleandMarkIndigenous collab
Recommendation 9: Develop a nationally coordinated approach to integrate the knowledge, rights, capabilities and aspirations of Traditional Owners into conventional marine science.

There is growing recognition among government and research organisations (e.g. NESP) that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples should play a greater role in the delivery of marine science and management of Sea Country.

There are also a number of national and international drivers for improved recognition of Traditional Owners’ rights to be involved in measures that affect them. These include the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, The Convention on Biological Diversity, Australia’s national environmental management legislation, and the Commonwealth’s Closing the Gap policy agenda.

The inherent rights and interests of Traditional Owners in Australia’s Sea Country are widely acknowledged and documented, formally and informally, but the marine science community is still grappling with how best to integrate these values into the scientific process.

The combination of traditional knowledge and Western science to co-design and co-deliver programs provides the best possible knowledge base to inform modern marine management decisions, and articulate research and management actions within culturally endorsed frameworks and protocols.

It will also result in greater research impact and value. A collaborative approach will build on substantial Commonwealth, state and territory government support. It will increase charitable and industry funding for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ranger programs around Australia.

It will also expand our ecological and biocultural knowledge, and increase the capability, capacity and geographic reach of Traditional Owners’ marine monitoring, research and management.

A national synthesis of the capacity, capability, knowledge needs and science priorities of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, which collates and builds on existing information, will form the basis of the national approach. The marine science community commits to integrating traditional knowledge, two-way knowledge exchange and partnerships with Traditional Owners wherever possible.

Recommendation 10: Establish national policy guidelines for open access to government-funded or regulatory data, provide historical-dataset access, and expand the Australian Ocean Data Network (AODN)

Understanding the status and trends of our complex marine ecosystems, including the human dimension, is crucial to the blue economy’s sustainable management of marine resources, industries and coastal communities, and for emergency preparedness.

This requires the integration of many multidisciplinary data streams and performant digital infrastructure. Over the past decade, development of computational power, software systems, data storage and access platforms, and vast improvements in communications speed means we have the potential to integrate the terabytes (trillions of bytes) of data needed to deliver state-of-the-art information products to industry, the public and decision-makers in near real time.

This technological revolution is transforming marine science, along with autonomous vehicles and aerial drones, micro-sensors, enhanced machine learning, and a vast array of other new technologies. New knowledge is being generated at scales ranging from micro (genetics and eDNA) to macro (earth-observing satellites), and over intervals of nanoseconds to geological time scales.

The collection of key marine datasets across our vast ocean and country is costly and time consuming. In addition, data is held by various sectors.

While many of these datasets are collected using public funds or to address regulatory requirements, relatively few are made publicly available.

This is primarily due to the lack of nationally agreed policies for ‘open access’ data, commonly-agreed data standards, and suitable repositories or funding to ingest data and make it interoperable.

A range of datasets are delivered via AODN, a dedicated public repository providing access to key marine datasets. However, AODN is primarily focused on oceanographic data and would need redesign and/or funding to accommodate multidisciplinary datasets from many sources.

AODN expansion will help unlock the power of data. It will develop and enhance Australia’s capability and capacity in managing, delivering, analysing and visualising a wide range of marine data from various sources.

This will require support for a well-connected and coordinated network of expert hubs, and adoption of the Findable, Accessible, Interoperable and Reusable (FAIR) data principles and CARE principles for Indigenous data governance (collective benefit, authority to control, responsibility and ethics).

Recommendation 11: Develop a coastal resilience-building approach firmly based in the proactive use of our natural environment

The need for novel approaches to sustain and protect our coastal ecosystems has never been more urgent. They bear the brunt of all factors affecting our marine environment, including climate change and pressures associated with development and coastal population growth.

These ecosystems are some of the most challenged in Australia’s marine estate. Yet they are socioculturally, economically and environmentally valuable to Australia as a nation.

Despite the widespread application of conventional management and conservation practices, degradation of these ecosystems and their value continues.

To build better coastal habitats and infrastructure, we need rapid development of a more interventionist, multidisciplinary approach. In particular, an approach that combines science and engineering such as nature-based solutions (NBS), ‘building with nature’ and green or eco-engineering.

Using NBS to restore coastal ecosystems supports a myriad critical services, such as coastal defence, blue water purification functions, nurseries for fish stocks and enhanced spaces for wildlife and recreation.

It is also more sustainable and generally more cost effective than conventional coastal engineering solutions. These coastal ecosystems can sequester carbon via marine macrophytes, and through restoration of seagrass beds, mangroves and, potentially, kelp forests.

Such ‘blue carbon’ programs could help fulfil Australia’s commitments to the Paris Climate Agreement. They are also consistent with current priorities for investing in soil-carbon based technology solutions for an Australian economy shifting its focus from fossil fuels.

Another NBS example includes using habitat-forming organisms to protect against coastal inundation and storm surge. Coral and oyster reefs, saltmarshes, mangroves and seagrasses attenuate local currents, dampen wave energy and accrete and stabilise sediments.

They act as an effective buffer against flooding and erosion. They grow vertically with changes in sea level to form a biological barrier that mitigates climate change-induced sea level rise.

Nature-based solutions, including those based on the knowledge and practices of Traditional Owners, are increasingly reflected in global initiatives such as the UN Decade of Ecosystem Restoration 2021–2030.

They also parallel approaches for greening urban infrastructure on land. Coastal solutions may need to cover hundreds or even thousands of kilometres of coastline, so critical to NBS success is understanding how to build at scale.

Call to action

Droughts and flooding rains have surpassed the stuff of poetry as Australia grapples with increasingly intense and frequent cyclones, bushfires, marine heatwaves and floods.

Rising coastal populations and competition for marine resources are turning the screws further still on our precious coastal systems. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a wrecking ball, flaying many industries and communities.

We have an opportunity to transform the way we use and prosper from one of our greatest resources: our oceans and coasts.

We call on the research community, industry, government and the public to all play their part in supporting and developing our blue economy and ensuring a future where all Australians can prosper.

Research community

We call on the research community to build on and amplify existing resources to establish truly national research programs, which incorporate all stakeholder needs and underpin decision-making and policy-making by industry and government.

  • Continue and expand collaborations across disciplines, sectors and borders, including citizen scientists and areas of society that have not been traditional science collaborators.
  • Establish national policy guidelines for open data access, provide digital access to historical datasets and expand the role of the AODN to provide tools for non-specialist users.
  • Develop a nationally coordinated approach to integrate the rights, interests, capacity and aspirations of Traditional Owners into conventional marine science.

Industry

We call on industry to engage and work with scientists to ensure science underpins their operational decision-making, risk assessments and future planning, and to create businesses that are both efficient and sustainable.

  • Use monitoring data to inform future food and offshore energy production, transport, marine security and urban coastal development.
  • Join the open data movement to make data publicly available or usable by researchers, and partner with government to make this happen.
  • Co-design a national-scale coastal modelling and forecasting system that addresses end-user needs in industry, government and community.

Government

We call on government to focus on and invest in the blue economy as an important plank in post-COVID economic recovery and resilience building, as well as the key to creating long-term social, cultural and environmental benefits for all Australians.

  • Resolve political and jurisdictional issues that constrain the implementation of coastal system programs and national studies. 
  • Continue and increase support for critical foundational infrastructure, such as IMOS beyond 2023, extended operational capacity on RV Investigator (300 days per year beyond 2022) and capability (coastal fleet), and a coordinated national research vessels fleet.
  • Establish national open data policies across sectors, and support and extend the AODN.

Community

We call on the community to recognise the responsibility we all share as a marine nation, and to play an active role in ensuring the long-term health of our oceans and coasts
for all Australians.

Flip the boxes for more detail

NMSC Chair and Deputy

Chair: Toni Moate, Director of National Facilities and Collections, CSIRO

Deputy Chair: Kim Picard, Chair of the AusSeabed Steering Committee, Geoscience Australia  

NMSC secretariat

Margot.Hind@csiro.au

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