The system of marine parks that spans Australia’s Commonwealth waters is among the largest in the world. The parks play a major role in conserving marine life and supporting our livelihoods and recreational pursuits. They also help to protect cultural values significant to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Parks Australia has developed management plans for the five regional Australian Marine Park (AMP) networks (North, North-west, South-west, South-east and Temperate East) and the Coral Sea Marine Park. Under each management plan, a science plan will set monitoring and research priorities to guide the collection of information to evaluate management effectiveness, and identify opportunities for improvement.

This prioritisation is vital given the low levels of knowledge for most of the AMPs, the technical challenges and high cost of implementing science in these vast and remote areas, the finite resources available for park management, and the complexity of the decision-making process.

Approach and findings

Establishing monitoring priorities for AMPs

In previous research, the Marine Biodiversity Hub (a predecessor to the Marine and Coastal Hub) worked with Parks Australia to develop an approach to identifying monitoring priorities for natural values and pressures in AMPs. A pilot project for the South-east Marine Parks Network provided an opportunity to test the approach and lay a pathway to broader implementation.

The four-step monitoring prioritisation process is driven by the management objectives listed in the management plans for each AMP, the values and pressures acting within each AMP, and the feasibility of monitoring different ecosystems and key natural values. It is underpinned by a common language that provides nationally consistent definitions, for natural, cultural, and heritage values; social, cultural, and economic benefits; activities and anthropogenic pressures; and biophysical, and social and economic drivers.

This project extended the process developed for the South-east Network to contribute to the development of science plans for the remaining regional AMP networks and the Coral Sea Marine Park. Natural values and pressures data were collated and analysed with a focus on four questions. 1. What is in the parks? 2. What is most important for management? 3. What does success look like? 4. What should be monitored?

Four-level monitoring-prioritisation process

The natural values ecosystems map was updated, with improved predictions for the locations of southern rocky reef systems. Pressures such as fishing, oil and gas development, ocean noise and sea level rise were identified according to the pressures common language. An expert-based ecosystem vulnerability assessment was updated and extended across all AMP networks. These three components were combined to produce a national relative cumulative impact index to identify priorities in AMPs. Level 1 monitoring priorities were identified after considering the potential responsiveness of the identified pressures to management measures (zoning).

Level 2 prioritisation considered factors such as the location of key natural values, and the ability to test the effects of different park zoning arrangements. Level 3 prioritisation involved assessing the availability of adequate baseline information, and sought to maintain representation of key natural values and ecosystems across provincial bioregions.

Baseline information was assessed for a range of ecosystem components including habitat (mapping data); fish; sessile benthic communities; and mobile invertebrates. Baselines were considered adequate where sufficient habitat mapping and inventory surveys had characterised the specific ecosystem component.

For example, at Cod Grounds Marine Park north-east of Taree, New South Wales, for the identified ecosystem key natural values are mesophotic rocky reefs, the baseline information is adequate and includes a BRUV monitoring program. This relatively shallow and accessible AMP is subject to towed video surveys, Reef Life Surveys and a Grey Nurse Shark monitoring program. In contrast, Central Eastern Marine Park begins 30 kilometres east of Coffs Harbour with depths from 120 metres to 6000 metres. This AMP is logistically more challenging and expensive to survey, and the baseline information for demersal fish, sessile benthic invertebrates and mobile invertebrates is inadequate.

An overall adequacy rating was then applied to each area to determine which of the priorities would form the basis for monitoring, and which should be identified as research priorities due to a need for more baseline information.

Level 4 prioritisation assessed which monitoring priorities are feasible in terms of the logistics, costs and opportunities for partnerships, and opportunities to test the effectiveness of marine park zoning. This step was undertaken through workshops and discussions with park managers. Each of the monitoring priorities derived from three steps above were discussed with regional teams.


This project provided Parks Australia with scientific and technical information and advice necessary to establish monitoring priorities for natural values and pressures for AMP networks and the Coral Sea Marine Park. Taken together with previous work completed under the Marine Biodiversity Hub, this completes a full national priority list for monitoring in AMPs. The combined research also provides a nationally accepted common language to describe natural values and pressures in this science-based approach to combining this information to determine national priorities. The management effectiveness system is the first national process of its type globally and a significant step towards adaptive, integrated and place-based management.

The remaining steps will be completed as data are collected in a systematic, prioritised fashion, and environmental outcomes are compared to management objectives. These steps can be re-iterated to achieve continual improvement in management actions and environmental outcomes, alongside improvements in the evidence base and our understanding of how ecosystems respond to multi-sectoral activities.

The most significant information gap is the limited understanding of the distribution of mesophotic and rariphotic reefs. This is being addressed by NESP Marine and Coastal Hub Project 2.1 – Mapping temperate continental shelf seabed habitats. This project needs to ensure a national map is developed and that other key ecosystems (such as seagrass) are included. The distribution of recreational fishing was improved from the SE pilot project, but there remain significant uncertainties and the overall impacts of recreational fishing within AMPs remains unquantified.

Further priority recommendations

  • Develop and implement a formal process to determine and publish key natural values, including robust, up-to-date descriptions. This will help park users and managers to prioritise and protect these special places.
  • Mapping of intertidal areas and islands needs improving so that the AMP ecosystem model can accurately depict all ecosystems managed by Parks Australia.
  • Continue to improve habitat models and data to characterise AMP ecosystems. This will improve the confidence that the AMP ecosystems model is accurate and useful as a basis for decisions.
  • Develop an understanding of how migratory and threatened species use AMPs. This will allow park managers to direct resources towards species that can best benefit from spatial management.
  • Update the pressure data sets to ensure that they are relevant for use as management effectiveness indicators. This may require systematic sourcing and integration of data from various data holders. This is critical to interpreting trends in the condition of park values, and the effectiveness of park management.
  • If the vulnerability assessment is used in the future, consideration should be given to updating it to a full cumulative impact assessment that includes ecosystem effects. This would improve understanding of how pressures are impacting AMP values, and risk assessment associated with new activities.

Project location