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Marine Reserve Planning of Australia

Case Authors

Dave Gershman, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


Marine Bioregional Planning (MBP) is Australia’s strategy to designate an ambitious Marine Protected Area (MPA) network. In the past, Australia had designated specific species and habitats for protection, but efforts have been unable to halt a decline in ecologically important fish populations or address the cumulative, negative effects of human activities.

The National Representative System of MPAs would conserve all major ecosystem functions and features found within Commonwealth waters, which extend from a point three miles from shore to 200 miles from shore at the limit of the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone.

The MBP process addresses several challenges that have stymied development of a nationally strategic approach to ocean management. The MBP process created separate planning efforts in five marine regions that would assemble relevant information on ecosystems, identify regional conservation priorities and gather public input.

MPAs may be a mixture of multiple-use zones and no-take zones that are off-limits to fishing and other extractive uses. The final plan will be a guide for conservation priorities and activities.

As of July 2010, bioregional profiles had been drafted for four of the five regions, but a strategy for implementing the MPAs had yet to be defined. Heading into an August 2010 election, opposition leader Tony Abbott vowed to suspend the MBP process, citing a lack of public involvement and the economic concerns of fishermen and coastal residents.


MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: Planning considers the interrelation of species and habitats and focuses on sustaining ecosystem function.
  • Adaptive Management: Commitment to developing Marine Protected Area networks using a precautionary approach that recognizes a need to adapt management actions as more detailed biological information is developed.

Mission and Primary Objectives


The mission of Marine Bioregional Planning is to provide a clearer focus on the protection, conservation and sustainable use of the marine environment of Australia, using principles of ecologically sustainable development.


A primary objective is to designate a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas to conserve biodiversity.


Key Parties

Lead Organization

  • Australian Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

Key Parties

  • State and territorial governments
  • Marine stakeholders, such as fishermen and industry


Program Structure

Marine Bioregional Planning (MBP) is being conducted largely within the Australian Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts.

Department officials developed the Marine Bioregional Profiles after workshops were held with external scientists to develop and assess information describing and characterizing ecosystems.

Development of Draft Marine Bioregional Plans also will be conducted within the department, though directed outreach will be conducted to marine stakeholders regarding areas of study for potential Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks. After the issuance of the draft plan, a public consultation period will allow the department to solicit public input that may be reflected in the Final Marine Bioregional Plan.

The department is working to develop a policy on how it should respond to impacts on marine users and industry by the creation of new MPAs. A Stakeholder Advisory Group was established by the department to provide public input into the policy development. The group includes representatives of the following groups: commercial, charter and recreational fishing sectors; boating industry; fishing tackle industry; petroleum, shipping and ports industries; ecotourism; indigenous peoples; and the conservation sector.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

Development of the Marine Bioregional Planning (MBP) process was preceded by a host of national and international commitments.

In 1999, Australia enacted a framework environmental law, the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which established that the Commonwealth marine environment is a matter of national environmental significance. Commonwealth marine environment refers to the ocean between the three-mile limit of state-governed waters and the edge of the Australian Exclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 miles offshore. Section 176 of the Act establishes that Marine Bioregional Plans be developed and considered by the minister for the environment and heritage in reviewing requests for actions that may have a significant impact on the marine environment.

In 2005, the MBP process began. It incorporated an effort that had been underway in the south-east marine region, which led to the designation of 13 new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in 2007. Those areas will not be altered through the MBP process.

A key goal of the MBP is the development of a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas to protect biodiversity. Development of the MPA network had been a long-standing desire as Australian officials expressed concern for the over-exploitation of marine resources and effects of increasing ocean temperatures from climate change.

Conservation of biodiversity had been a commitment established by Australia in 1992 when it signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, a United Nations-facilitated pact.

Guidelines assisting the development of an MPA network were issued in 1998 by the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council. A timeline was established in 2002 with a commitment to develop the MPA network by 2012.


Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The marine life and habitat in the coastal waters of Australia is diverse, and its health is important to the nation’s way of life and economy. The coastal regions are notable for tropical and subtropical habitats consisting of extensive coral reefs, rocky shores, sandy beaches, large beds of seagrass, mangrove forests, seamounts, and underwater habitats relating to the continental shelf and slope.

Many varieties of marine life can be found, including hundreds of species of fish as well as marine birds, turtles, seasnakes, whales, and other marine mammals. Significant numbers of internationally threatened species spend at least a portion of their life cycles within the Commonwealth waters of Australia.

Marine resources are important sources of income, employment, food and recreation. Commercial fishing in a single region identified by the Marine Bioregional Planning process, for instance, was valued at more than $120 million annually. Recreational fishing and tourism also rely on healthy ecosystems.


Some fisheries are in decline and concerns are being raised about the resiliency of key ecosystems as ocean temperatures rise due to climate change.


Major Strategies

Marine Bioregional Planning (MBP) is intended to develop two major program strategies:

Marine Protected Areas

The National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas would include multiple-use areas and no-take areas that are off-limits to fishing and other extractive uses. The intention, however, is not to use Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to regulate fisheries. The following goals have been established:

Primary goal:

  • To establish and manage a comprehensive, adequate, and representative system of MPAs to contribute to the long-term ecological viability of marine and estuarine systems to maintain ecological processes and systems, and to protect Australia’s biological diversity at all levels.

Secondary goals:

  • To promote the development of MPAs within the framework of integrated ecosystem management.
  • To provide a formal management framework for a broad spectrum of human activities, including recreation, tourism, shipping and the use or extraction of resources, the impacts of which are compatible with the primary goal.
  • To provide scientific references sites.
  • To provide for the special needs of rare, threatened or depleted species and threatened ecological communities.
  • To provide for the conservation of special groups of organisms, for instance, species with complex habitat requirements, or mobile or migratory species, or species vulnerable to disturbance.
  • To protect areas of high conservation value including those containing high species diversity, natural refuge for flora and fauna and centers of endemism.
  • To provide for the recreational, aesthetic and cultural needs of indigenous and non-indigenous people.

Establishing Priorities

Secondly, MBP is designed to lead to clearer guidance for governmental decision-makers and industry by developing regional conservation values and priorities that can be considered by the minister for the environment against proposals for new human activities that would cause environmental harm.

The planning process will establish characteristics of the marine regions as matters of national environmental significance.

Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

Systematic monitoring programs have not been proscribed at this stage of the planning process, but the guidelines informing Marine Bioregional Planning commit the Australian government to identifying information gaps, and a strategy to address those gaps.

Although a specific strategy for the implementation of Marine Protected Area (MPA) networks has not been identified, guidelines allow MPAs to be implemented through a staged, precautionary approach. That allows for new regulations to take effect in the absence of detailed biological information, and to adapt them based on the development of that information.


Marine Bioregional Planning has actualized long-standing government commitments of the Australian government by beginning an ambitious planning process that will identify threats to ecosystem processes, and recommend management actions to preserve ecosystem biodiversity and function.

Website Links

Marine Bioregional Planning home page: