Director’s overview

Nic Bax:

The overall objective for the NERP Marine Biodiversity Hub was to ‘provide scientific information and advice that will support (the Department of the Environment) in decision making in the marine environment, specifically to:

  • implement and monitor marine bioregional plans;
  • develop the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA);
  • support the information needs of the Environmental Resources information Network (ERIN) and  Approvals and Wildlife Division (AWD); and
  • provide key baseline information for the Heritage Division’.
Nic Bax.

Nic Bax

For four years, the seven NERP Marine Biodiversity Hub partners have worked closely with departmental officers, adjusting research and deliverables to suit a changing policy environment. The research was coordinated by a Research Leadership Team comprised of theme and project leaders, and representatives from all partners. This ensured the adoption of research advances, such as the application by the Regional Biodiversity Discovery Theme of survey design approaches developed in the Monitoring Theme.

Scientific survey equipment on wharf in Hobart.

IMAGE: Marine Biodiversity Hub surveys have provided baseline descriptions to support future monitoring of CMRs.

Stakeholder and partner representatives on the Hub Steering Committee oversaw the program and provided guidance to the Director, and many collaborators have been integral to the research. Infrastructure provided through the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) was vital to the success of projects investigating seabed condition, while threatened species projects depended on the infrastructure and personnel resources of Northern Territory Fisheries, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries, the New South Wales Office of Environment and Heritage, and the Department of Fisheries Western Australia, in addition to IMOS. Other collaborators are listed in Research Collaborators.

To ensure relevant and appropriate  research outputs, research leaders and especially the Hub Director and Knowledge Broker endeavoured to understand the decision making challenges that face departmental officers, and the associated information needs. A peer-reviewed journal paper, essential to scientific development, is of little direct use to a manager required to make rapid decisions, unless the data have also been provided in a form suitable for the internal information system. Consequently, the Hub Knowledge Broker developed communication products useful to departmental officers and increased the managers’ capacity to use them. When the Plan for a Cleaner Environment was released in October 2013 setting the new government’s environmental management strategy, we mapped the Hub’s ongoing research to this new strategy (see figure opposite), and were encouraged to see that our research portfolio still met Australia’s marine biodiversity research needs.

Scientists still frequently believe that good science will be adopted and are surprised when frontline managers have not used the latest available scientific information. This is because we often focus on what science can deliver, rather than what the customer wants. But what does the customer want? A clear summary of Departmental research priorities can be difficult to find. This is perhaps understandable as we are asking managers to step into our shoes and show us what research they would find valuable. What if, instead, we ask what is valuable in their daily routines? What decisions are made and what data are routinely used? We have had good results using this approach. We have collaborated with the Department to develop a blueprint for marine ecosystem health monitoring in Commonwealth waters. We have worked with ERIN and marine managers in the Department to map where and how data are used to support decision making. We have also led the development of an integrated monitoring framework for the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. This intensive engagement driven by specific questions asked by departmental officers has required substantial effort and resources, but has been instrumental in increasing the impact of research outputs.

Drivers of research.

Adapting to changing policies

The Hub’s efforts to help the Department implement and monitor marine bioregional plans met with mixed success. Ironically, some of the research areas most tightly linked to departmental decision making – such as marine implementation of the revised offsets policy – have been challenged by a changing policy environment. This is a reminder that if our goal is to influence decision making, we cannot assume that Department and stakeholder goals and objectives will remain constant. Other areas have met with much more direct success.

We have improved the understanding of conservation values identified in marine bioregional plans, including Commonwealth marine reserves (CMRs) and Key Ecological Features (KEFs). We have also cultivated the collaborations and developed the standardised approaches required to monitor CMRs and marine ecosystem health, and contribute to State of the Environment reporting. A marine blueprint is being developed with the Department to understand our capability to monitor status and trends of marine biodiversity in deep waters, and the opportunities to extend that capability. This will provide a foundation for integrating existing and new monitoring programs to cost-effectively support planning, regulation and management. It complements the integrated monitoring framework developed in collaboration with two other Hubs, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Queensland Government that has been incorporated into the REEF 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan.

A landscape approach to marine management identified the areas used by multiple vulnerable shark species. Further management attention in such areas could benefit multiple species while reducing the impact on fisheries, compared with a species-by-species approach. A second approach used predictions of the distributions and commercial uses of benthic habitats in South-east Australia to estimate the impact of alternative management tools (such as fisheries closures and CMRs) on habitat destruction and recovery. The tools and techniques developed in these landscape projects are being advanced outside the Hub to support commercial fisheries management.

Threatened species research was initially focussed on projects that would enable recovery plans to be implemented more cost effectively. Euryhaline elasmobranchs were selected to examine whether new genetic and telemetry approaches effectively support decision-making and appraisal of recovery plans. Early success with this approach has led to its extension to White Sharks and Grey Nurse Sharks, and is providing the first estimates of adult population size.

Ongoing developments may soon enable measures of adult population size, and the size one generation ago, all from contemporaneous samples. This promises a fundamental change in the information that can be provided on these threatened species. Our research capability built on earlier fisheries research and supported the Department in decision-making under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Act 1999. It supported the development and implementation of recovery plans, the international convention in trade on endangered species and the evaluation of potential impacts of proposed activities and developments.

Hub research has helped the Department to develop the NRSMPA, providing baseline descriptions for CMRs (Oceanic Shoals, Flinders, Freycinet, Tasman Fracture, Geographe, and Coral Sea) to support future monitoring. Robust survey designs were developed that will withstand both funding and oceanic conditions. Social and economic studies are helping to identify how the public identifies with and values the marine environment and marine protected areas, and how different forms of communication and information affect perceptions of management options. We had less success in working with the Department to operationalise management objectives for the CMR network, partly because the Department needed to focus on a changing policy environment that included the CMR Review. Adding to this was the challenge of prioritising management objectives for a representative network covering more than a third of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, from high tropical species richness in the north to high endemism in the south.

Improving data access

Data discovery and access has improved during the course of the Hub, contributing to the objective to support the information needs of ERIN and AWD (now Environmental Assessment and Compliance). We have worked with the Australian Ocean Data Network (AODN), the Atlas of Living Australia and partners and collaborators to make data available soon after collection. At the same time we have helped to increase the relevance of these data portals to environmental managers and researchers by enabling searches on conservation values including CMRs and KEFs. National maps of pressures and how they have changed over time (aggregated to match the State of the Environment reporting cycle) are now available through the AODN and will be an important input to State of the Environment 2016. We have also developed a search tool that extracts previous survey information relevant to monitoring CMRs and the use of KEFs for monitoring marine ecosystem health. We have worked with ERIN to identify marine policy and management decisions being made in the Department, and the supporting data portals and processes. Further work remains in this area, including through the National Plan for Environmental Information, but we are confident that we are developing a deeper understanding of the Department’s information needs. Scientists’ information needs, including longer term data archival, are also being met through existing national research data infrastructure.

In providing key baseline information for the Heritage Division, Hub scientists have developed new national datasets and classifications to identify and assess areas of natural heritage.An accurate map and classification of Australia’s 750 marine canyons (many previously unrecognised) will identify canyons that may have higher biodiversity value. New national and global biogeographies provide the basis for moving beyond the Integrated Marine and Coastal Regionalisation of Australia (IMCRA 4.0). New genetic analyses of existing museum samples indicate that movements of the Earth’s tectonic plates contributed to the speciation of marine fauna.

The Hub would not have achieved the successes that it has without the many dedicated researchers in partner institutions, or without our many collaborators. It is a pleasure for me to recognise the many and diverse inputs from such a talented and creative group of people. Finally, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Steering Committee which has unfailingly been available to provide sound guidance that has improved the outcomes of the NERP Hub and laid the foundations for the NESP Marine Biodiversity Hub.


Nic Bax
(03) 6232 5341

Research leadership team


Nic Bax, UTAS

Knowledge Broker
Paul Hedge, UTAS

Project leaders

Australian Institute of Marine Science
Julian Caley

Charles Darwin University
Peter Kyne

Barry Bruce, Piers Dunstan, Keith Hayes, Tony Smith

Geoscience Australia
Scott Nichol

Museum Victoria
Tim O’Hara

University of Tasmania
Sarah Jennings


University of Western Australia
Jessica Meeuwig

University of Tasmania
Neville Barrett