Marine monitoring blueprint: meeting a monumental challenge

Underwater view of Seaweed (gorgonian)

IMAGE: Key Ecological Features represent areas of significant biodiversity or ecological functioning and integrity within Commonwealth waters.

Australia’s Commonwealth waters support a range of marine biodiversity, ecological features and processes, and contribute to the economy through fishing, energy and tourism industries.

Monitoring this environment is an enormous challenge, and the Department of the Environment has been investing since 2008 in Australia’s capacity to report on the health of the Commonwealth Marine Area (CMA). The investment is fostering new approaches to characterising and analysing marine areas – including environmental pressures, and monitoring change – by government agencies, research organisations and industries.

This project provided direction for the staged implementation of a monitoring program to meet the Department’s reporting needs. Existing marine conservation values (Key Ecological Features, or KEFs) identified by the Australian government were considered together with the requirements, options and constraints associated with building a national monitoring program. A central question was whether a sufficient evidence base existed to support State of the Environment reporting on the health and trends of KEF habitat, features, processes and pressures.


Eight years of research on ecological indicators and monitoring for the CMA were synthesised to begin clarifying the drivers and interests that motivate the Department to seek information on marine ecosystem health. A search engine known as ARMADA (see story Collating existing survey data for Commonwealth marine waters) was built to assess the major marine databases in Australia. Existing data relevant to monitoring KEFs were summarised to identify opportunities for use in determining status and trends, and information gaps. Finally, Australia’s capacity (governance and functional) for monitoring KEFs was reviewed.

Key findings

The Department seeks to improve the monitoring of marine ecosystem health in the CMA through a focus on KEFs. Fifty-four KEFs have been identified across Australia’s six bioregional marine planning areas (not including State waters or the Great Barrier Reef Marine Protected Area). Based on the existing scientific understanding of marine ecosystems and their response to pressures, suites of physical and biological indicators have been identified for 33 KEFs.

KEFs represent areas of significant biodiversity or ecological functioning and integrity within Commonwealth waters. The monitoring of KEFs therefore will provide an evidence base to support decision making to conserve and protect the Commonwealth marine environment. It will also strengthen the quality of environmental reporting on the status and trends of marine health, such as that undertaken for State of the Environment reporting.

Governance mechanisms that provide leadership, oversight and coordination for KEF monitoring have not been established. Establishing an initial oversight and coordination group is an important step in transitioning from KEF research to prioritised operational KEF monitoring.

Existing data within KEF boundaries date back to the 1950s and mainly cover physical data used to understand ocean circulation. Most scientific biological sampling has occurred for KEFs associated with shelf reefs and areas of enhanced pelagic productivity. This combined with satellite data is likely to initiate monitoring baselines for some KEFs. Limited data have been collected for KEFs associated with seamounts, but further work is needed to gauge their value to monitoring. Relatively few biological datasets have been collected for KEFs associated with submarine canyons, unique features of the deep sea, and shelf sediment basins.

Australia’s marine observing community has the capability to deploy ocean observing equipment to generate new monitoring data for KEFs, including visual and video-based methods, acoustic and remote sensing methods and physical sampling. Methods with a relatively long history of deployment – such as diver visual census, active fishing gears, and earth observing satellites – experience the least constraints (such as cost, ease of deployment, and maturity of data processing and analysis).

The Department will require data management arrangements for KEF monitoring and will need to clarity its role in managing KEF indicator data. The Australian Ocean Data Network enables Australian government agencies and stakeholders to share and link KEF monitoring data. The Bureau of Meteorology National Environmental Information Infrastructure provides reference architecture for enhancing the discovery, access and use of national environmental information and should be used to configure data management arrangements for KEF indicator data. Information products for KEF monitoring will need to be specified after monitoring priorities are identified.

The marine monitoring blueprint identifies that Australia has the ecosystem understanding and practical capability necessary to begin KEF monitoring. Vision, governance and clear prioritisation will be important elements of the establishment phase.

New knowledge and opportunities

A foundation has been laid for a more strategic approach to understanding and monitoring marine ecosystem health that builds on past and present research investment. The majority of the KEFs share common ecological systems, and can be grouped to facilitate regional or national environmental reporting. Discussion between scientists and policy makers identified six reporting groups: for ecosystems associated with canyons, deep sea beds, areas of enhanced pelagic productivity (see story Streamlining marine monitoring indicators), seamounts, shelf reefs and shelf seabeds.

Outputs and outcomes

This project has produced a blueprint for improving the monitoring of marine ecosystem health in the CMA with tools including a KEF atlas and KEF database identifying existing data, models and indicators. It has fostered a collective understanding among policy makers and scientists of Australia’s marine monitoring capacity, and of how this capacity can be improved through continued collaboration.