The National Marine
Science Plan 2015–2025

The National Marine Science Committee launched the National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 on 11 August 2015 at Australian Parliament House.

The Plan draws together the knowledge and experience of Australia's marine research organisations, universities and government departments and more than 500 scientists.

The Plan outlines the science needed to provide the knowledge, technology and innovation cornerstones that will develop and grow a blue economy.

Our oceans have a very large number of stakeholders, particularly if we include all those Australians who expect their coasts and oceans to be healthy and productive.

The Plan is a call to action to the nation’s marine scientists.

But it is also a call to action for all those who will benefit from a strong marine science sector that is dedicated to working with governments, industries and communities to create a strong economy and vibrant society while protecting the things we all care about.

Used wisely, Australia’s ocean resources can generate increasing wealth, food and energy, and support sustainable living for generations.
National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025

The challenges

The Plan identifies seven critical challenges that Australia needs to overcome if we are to fulfil the potential of the blue economy and the yet-to-be-discovered possibilities of our ocean estate.

These challenges were drawn from Marine Nation 2025 and a series of white papers developed by working groups in the marine science community.

 Maintaining maritime sovereignty, safety and security

Marine stakeholders all require accurate and up-to-date information about sea state, atmospheric conditions and geohazards to support their multiple uses of the jurisdiction.

These stakeholders include the shipping industry, coastal managers, port operators, the offshore oil and gas industry, defence, border protection, the aquaculture and fishing industries, tourism, recreational boating, coastal engineers and emergency managers.

There is a constant need for information at timescales that stretch from hours to weeks — whether it is for industry operations or for prediction, prevention, mitigation or compliance activities, out at sea or along the coast.

Meeting these needs is a constant challenge, but particularly so in the case of extreme weather events, which remain poorly understood and a challenge to predict.

Their impact is also disproportionately strong, and climate change is predicted to increase the intensity and frequency of some events.

These extreme events include both physical and biological natural hazards such as destructive winds, waves and storm surges, tropical cyclones, flooding, surface and subsurface currents, temperature extremes, beach erosion, algal blooms, coral bleaching and invasive species.

To maintain Australia’s marine sovereignty, and improve security and safety, we need a long-term strategy to better understand, monitor and predict sea state (winds, currents and waves) and extreme events in Australia’s marine environment, including the vast area beyond our borders over which we have international search-and-rescue responsibilities.

 Achieving energy security

Energy security underpins Australia’s domestic and export economy. It ensures access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy sources. Access to a diversity of primary energy sources supports our domestic energy requirements and helps us grow and sustain our export gas markets.

In 2013–14, exports of liquefied natural gas (LNG), Australia’s third-largest goods and services export, were valued at $16.3 billion. This export market is predicted to grow from around 20 million tonnes per annum in 2012–13 to 76.6 million tonnes per annum by 2020.

Our economy’s reliance on imports of crude oil and refined petroleum products is also expected to grow at around 3 per cent per annum over the next 20 years.

These needs are coupled with increasing global societal demands for renewable energy sources that produce less carbon dioxide, such as natural gas and renewable energy, or for conventional sources allied with CO2 capture and storage.

Many of this Plan’s recommendations for improving our understanding of ocean state and variability support the further evaluation of alternative energy sources such as wind, wave and current energy.

In addition to these demands for renewable energy sources, Australia’s marine estate is largely under-explored.

Petroleum activity is extending into deeper waters, and the well-established regulatory approval process for energy development has to accommodate the concerns and interests of the public and many overlapping users.

Australia needs to protect our marine environment and the sustainability of its resources by considering the environmental risks and socioeconomic impacts associated with energy resource exploration, development and production.

Scientific research is therefore needed to support the development of policies and regulations governing the exploitation of emerging marine energy sources, and to ensure that current energy-related industries continue to operate under leading practice regulatory frameworks.

 Ensuring food security

Australia needs to address our current and potential future gaps in food self-sufficiency and improve production as part of reducing our reliance on imports.

We currently import 72 per cent of our seafood, despite our country’s considerable capacity for meeting both existing market demand and potential future growth in demand.

Meanwhile, environmental change, regional conflict, greater public scrutiny of natural resource management, and uncertain resource access could affect proposed seafood production, both here and globally.

Australian fisheries are small by world standards, in terms of production, but have a large geographic, ecological, social and political footprint.

Our aquaculture production has almost doubled in the last decade, with even greater room for expansion and diversification and an opportunity for sustainable growth.

Significant opportunities also exist for Indigenous, social and economic benefit from improved access to marine resources.

By developing the potential use of our marine jurisdiction, Australia could supply food to countries whose production falls abruptly.

Aquatic products are predicted to have some of the largest real price increases among the major global food sources — and the greatest growth is expected in our region.

However, infectious diseases are an ongoing threat and healthy stocks are important, not only for the protection of our natural resources but also to enhance our competitiveness, and to maintain and grow market access.

Seafood safety and production issues include pathogens, biotoxins and contamination, longer and more complex supply chains, and emerging international regulations.

This is a global challenge that provides an opportunity for us to export our knowledge and services. We will therefore need to maintain and increase our effective international partnerships.

Importantly, many of the changes needed for long-term food security require multidisciplinary research planning and implementation, so Australia needs to implement key strategies to prepare for critical and emerging issues.

Six national goals have been identified to focus research, development and extension activities.

We should:

• manage Australia’s fisheries and aquaculture sectors in a risk-based manner that will ensure that they are publicly acknowledged as ecologically sustainable

• improve secure access to, and allocation of, fisheries and aquaculture resources

• maximise benefits and value from fisheries resources (productivity and profitability) and increase aquaculture production

• streamline governance and regulatory systems

• maintain the health of habitats and environments on which fisheries and aquaculture rely

• improve management of aquatic animal health.

 Understanding and adapting to climate variability and change

Australia is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate variability and human-induced climate change.

We are already experiencing impacts across the Australian economy, society and environment, and these are likely to be even greater in the future.

In the marine environment, impacts include sea level rise, coral bleaching events, acidification, tropical cyclone frequency and intensity, changes in freshwater run-off, invasive marine species, ocean warming, extreme events and changes in hydrological cycles and ocean circulation.

For example, around 250,000 Australian homes, roads, rail, ports, airports, water and wastewater services, energy and communications infrastructure, public assets and commercial assets are vulnerable to a 1.1 metre sea level rise by 2100. The estimated sum at risk is $226 billion.

Other sectors at risk of sea level and sea temperature rises include aquaculture and fisheries industries, worth about $2.23 billion. It also includes the Great Barrier Reef, which contributes $5.7 billion to the Australian economy each year, most of it derived from tourism.

Coral bleaching will also see a loss of biodiversity and degradation of fish stocks, increasing the risk to food security in the Australasian region.

The range of affected stakeholders is wide. These include the defence forces, tourism, agriculture, offshore oil and gas and renewable energy industries, coastal planning, marine parks and regulatory authorities, international nongovernment organisations, and international, national, state and local governments.

 Conserving our biodiversity and ecosystem health

Australia’s marine estate is home to some of the world’s most iconic and diverse marine habitats and organisms, and includes several world heritage-listed areas.

Yet much of this estate remains unmapped and its species undiscovered, leaving us with limited understanding of the new opportunities that Australia’s ocean territory contains.

Most Australians also enjoy living near the coast. However, this concentration of population and industries along the continental margin has placed a heavy burden on ecosystems in the coastal zone, and increasingly on adjacent seas.

Past actions have left damaging legacies ranging from the complete alienation of wetlands to barrages on marginal lands preventing fish passage. The combined impacts of agricultural and urban development on water quality are also a concern throughout Australia.

Poor water quality, nutrients, pesticides and sediments are having a significant, negative impact on the Great Barrier Reef.

Meanwhile, urban coastal Australians are demanding more from the scientific community as they grapple with trade-offs between social, economic and environmental outcomes.

Ocean warming has also caused several major bleaching events on the world heritage-listed Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef. It is changing the distribution of marine species. Ocean acidification and hypoxia are further threats to all marine ecosystems.

Increased vessel traffic across Australian borders and between coastal ports is an indicator of national wealth and prosperity, but it also raises the biosecurity threat from invasive marine species, underwater noise pollution and marine accidents.

Importantly, most stressors to marine biodiversity and ecosystem health are concurrent and cumulative, highlighting the need for integrated, multidisciplinary approaches.

 Creating sustainable urban coastal development

Australia has experienced a period of pronounced urban economic development and infrastructure growth, which has been centred around coastal hubs.

Our urban coastal environments are also under increasing pressure from population growth, sea level rise, conflicting stakeholder uses, catchment and industry impacts, and climate variability and change.

The great challenge for coastal managers and policymakers is to balance these multiple competing uses and the impacts of those uses.

These impacts include: contamination from heavy metals, herbicides, pesticides, nutrients and plastics; the effects of warming, sea level rise, flooding and ocean acidification from climate change; increased biotic invasion from increasing coastal trade, aquaculture and recreational vessel movement; and foreshore armouring, construction of artificial structures and habitat loss due to port and coastal development.

How we manage these issues will have profound consequences for most Australians.

Around 85 per cent of the population live within 50 kilometres of the coast, which is also home to port development; oil, gas and mineral resources; tourism and recreation; Indigenous communities; shipping and transport; new marine industries; fishing industry; renewable energy; and water and food security.

Rural and remote areas face similar concerns, with nutrient run-off, mining development and competition among users creating major challenges.

Our coastal urban environments also fulfil important cultural, recreational and aesthetic needs. They have intrinsic biological diversity values and provide essential ecosystem functions such as primary productivity, nutrient cycling and water filtration.

 Developing equitable and balanced resource allocation

Coastal and marine developments are increasingly the scenes for heated competition between a broad range of users, including different industry sectors, conservation groups, marine park stakeholders, recreational and Indigenous users, and the general public.

This competition often involves high-profile, professional and expensive campaigns based on inherently different values.

The polarity in this debate intensifies where profound uncertainty exists on the nature and extent of risks to environmental and social values, and how these are best mitigated.

Similarly, conflict is common where property rights are inadequately defined.

All stakeholders, and ultimately the nation, share the costs of natural capital depletion, the costs of delays and complexity in approval processes, and the costs of making decisions where the nature and extent of risk are poorly understood.

Politicians, policymakers and regulators will face the major challenge of balancing these different values when making development decisions and allocating resources over the next decade as we strive to double the size of our blue economy and continue urbanising our coastal fringe.

Given this growth, we need to develop and invest in more technically and socially robust approaches to decision-making processes for resource allocation, development and conservation.

The recommendations

The Plan includes eight recommendations that will help build and share critical marine data, undertake multidisciplinary research and create essential technology, tools and innovations. These scientific outputs will drive economic development, environmental management and cultural stewardship of our marine estate for the next decade.

The marine science community, government and industry must undertake this coordinated, collaborative and dedicated national effort. And we must bring the wider community on board too.

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

The aspirations of this decadal plan will not be realised with ‘business as usual’ marine science.

It will require some fundamental and generational shifts in the way we teach and learn marine science, the platforms and technologies we use at sea and in the laboratory, and the processes through which we plan and deliver marine science.

Creating an explicit focus on the blue economy throughout the marine science system will be key to our success. To do this, we will need to:

  • increase the collection and analysis of social and economic data, and develop the methods to allow the full integration of social, economic, biological and physical data on marine systems into decision-making by governments and industry as part of a fully integrated approach
  • accelerate the innovation cycle by increasing government investment in developing and applying diverse, non-traditional science to marine problems and spawning new technological solutions, services and products, such as bio-prospectivity and bioproducts, eco-engineering and geoengineering, and eco-restoration
  • facilitate placements of scientists in business and managers in research as part of their education and training
  • plan large, long-term research, with end users involved from concept to delivery
  • focus marine science effort at the front end of regional development cycles, like those we are about to see in northern Australia.

This blue economy focus is already done well in some research areas, but we must build on these strengths, and make marine science indispensable to our nation’s growing economy

2. Establish and support a National Marine Baselines and Long-term Monitoring Program to develop a comprehensive assessment of our estate and to help manage Commonwealth and State Marine Reserves

The National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 recommends that a National Marine Baselines and Longterm Monitoring Program be established and supported as a partnership between the Commonwealth and states.

This would provide the basis for systematic exploration, mapping and characterisation of our marine estate, and for monitoring the condition of key assets.

For example, the Great Barrier Reef, the Commonwealth marine reserve system, state marine protected areas, major ports and urban embayments.

This would also:
• bring together existing data sets held by governments and government agencies, universities and industry
• establish methods and data standards for developing environmental baselines and long-term monitoring, and ideally also environmental impact assessments conducted by industry
• provide a basis for reporting the state of the national marine environment and the impact of cumulative pressures on high-value systems.

Environmental baselines and long-term monitoring will require the collection of a suite of essential biophysical and ecosystem variables, but will also need to incorporate key social and economic data.

Marine conservation measures should routinely include provision for performance (outcome) monitoring.

This will help facilitate the establishment and ongoing support for a National Marine Baselines and Long-term Monitoring Program.

3. Facilitate coordinated national studies on marine system processes and resilience to enable understanding of development and climate change impacts on our marine estate.

To make good decisions on sustainable development and adaptation to climate change, we need to take into account all the components of the marine system: biological, physical, social and economic.

We also need to understand and quantify the cumulative and compounding impacts on our marine estate of:

• population growth
• industrial, agricultural and urban development
• fisheries
• climate change, including ocean acidification.

We urgently need to improve knowledge of the key processes that underpin system function to understand the limits to resilience and adaptation in our diverse range of marine ecosystems.

We also need to better understand the cultural, political, social and economic drivers, which will be critical to developing policy and management responses by government and industry.

Given the scale and complexity of this challenge, the community must focus its efforts and take a more collaborative approach.

Therefore, we recommend that the Australian marine science community establish an agreed set of ecosystems and regional foci where coordinated and intensive studies of ecosystem processes and resilience would be concentrated.

It is also recommended that we enhance the capability of the marine science community to investigate the key elements of marine systems in each of the chosen focal areas.

We need to do this by establishing strategic collaborative partnerships between universities, research agencies, citizen scientists and end users in the private and public sectors to fund and conduct the research.

4. Create a National Oceanographic Modelling System to supply the accurate, detailed knowledge and predictions of ocean state that defense, industry and government need.

This modelling system would serve the broad range of Australian Government regulators and operational agencies, marine industry sectors (offshore oil and gas, shipping, fisheries, aquaculture and tourism) and public users that require accurate, detailed knowledge and predictions of ocean state, including currents, waves, temperature, salinity, pH and productivity.

It would use and assimilate data collected by a sustained and expanded IMOS and our national research vessel fleet, and also draw in the significant observational data collected by industry as part of their core business.

Given the scale of this challenge, and the depth of capability across academic institutions and publicly funded research agencies, we recommend that a national research focus on operational oceanography be established to ensure timely delivery of this significant national capability.

5. Develop a dedicated and coordinated science program to support decision-making by policymakers and marine industry.

Over the last two decades, the development and governance of marine and coastal assets has increasingly been a contested space for industries, governments and communities.

These contested values and aspirations have often led politicians and regulators to make inherently difficult choices, at times without conclusive information on the risks and benefits associated with their decisions.

As we continue to develop our blue economy and urban coastal fringe, advances in decision science and risk and systems modelling methods offer great promise.

This promise is also driven by the growing awareness that better decisions and outcomes are based on integrating biophysical, economic and social data.

Industries, insurance companies, regulators and local government authorities all stand to benefit from this enhanced capability.

It is recommended that the marine science community work with planners and managers from government, industry and nongovernment organisations to develop and refine decision-support tools that will translate knowledge and data into useful information for effective decision-making.

In particular, it is recommended that these efforts focus on better decision-support for cumulative impacts and conflict resolutions in multi-use systems, and for the integration of social and economic consequences and social acceptability of impacts.

Integrated governance frameworks would support the implementation and uptake of such decision-support tools.

6. Sustain and expand the Integrated Marine Observing System to support critical climate change and coastal systems research, including coverage of key estuarine systems.

The National Marine Science Plan 2015–2025 recommends that Australia’s Integrated Marine Observing System be sustained as a national provider of open ocean and continental shelf observations, and expanded to serve as the national provider for estuarine and coastal observations.

Improved and sustained observations of these systems are essential for many of the key research foci identified in this Plan.

Additionally, we recommend that a guaranteed proportion of time on the RV Investigator and coastal marine research vessels be allocated to IMOS to ensure that the national observing system networks can be deployed and serviced at required intervals.

7. Develop marine science research training that is more quantitative, cross-disciplinary and congruent with the needs of industry and government

Marine science research training is weighted towards specific disciplines that do not always match the future needs of industry or government employers.

We also need to ensure that the training produces graduates who have highly developed numeracy skills and the ability to engage effectively with stakeholders.

Australian training of PhD students focuses on the research topic of the candidate’s thesis. This often limits opportunities for cross-disciplinary training and provides little formal structure for training in basic science technology, engineering and mathematics skills.

It also does not facilitate training in a mixture of natural and social sciences, which is increasingly critical for environmental scientists.

These issues are partly a consequence of historical trends in training demands for different disciplines, but they are also a consequence of the formal structure of research training.

To make training more quantitative and cross-disciplinary, we may need to introduce formal teaching components into PhD programs.

We may also need to change the current duration and basic structure of postgraduate programs, which are built around three-year PhD scholarships.

Similarly, to ensure that the marine science graduates are job-ready for careers in marine industries, more formal connections between industry and universities are needed.

Cadetships, internships, industry- sponsored postgraduate and postdoctoral scholarships provide an opportunity for students and early-career researchers to understand how their skills can be applied. They can also learn the very different drivers of research and development in the commercial world.

8. Fund national research vessels for full use.

To achieve the goals of this plan, we need the funds to operate Australia’s new world-class, marine national facility, RV Investigator, for 300 days per year.

Given our Antarctic territorial claim, we also need to fund the national icebreaker, Research/Supply Vessel (RSV) Aurora Australis, to support a significant increase in marine science throughout the eastern Antarctic sector of the Southern Ocean.

Over the next decade, we will need to replace our ageing coastal research fleet, which is operated by government agencies and universities.

To ensure that the nation gets the most from existing vessel capacity, we recommend that operators of coastal research vessels increase the opportunities for collaborative use across the Australian marine science community, particularly for areas identified in this Plan as a high priority.

Models for sharing international research vessel capacity should also be explored.

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  

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