PARK WATCH Article November 2022 |

Victoria’s marine protection legacy is out of date and now lags behind other states. This year’s 20th anniversary of marine national parks and sanctuaries is a timely reminder to up our game on marine protection.

On 16 November 2022, we celebrate 20 years since Victoria created of the world’s first network of marine national parks and sanctuaries. But first let’s take a second to recap how it is we got to this point.

How far we’ve come

Topping the list of achievements over our 70 long years of nature conservation is the creation of Victoria’s marine network, created in 2002 by the Bracks Government. Since then, we’ve seen marine friends’ groups and local champions stepping up as guardians for these special places, undertaking citizen science activities and leading the public on journeys of discovery.

We’ve also seen more and more Victorians enjoy snorkelling, diving, rock pooling, kayaking, and walking in these precious salty playgrounds. From a scientific perspective, we know a lot more about what lies beneath the surface.  Parks Victoria’s Research Partner ecosystem monitoring Program has helped us to map the habitats of seascapes and discover marine life that call these parks home, using technology and people power.

Some of these learnings include:

  • The discovery of sponge garden biodiversity hotspots at Port Phillip Heads, Wilsons Promontory and Cape Howe.
  • Uncovering the rare and important rhodolith beds in some of the parks comprising colourful, unattached calcareous nodules of significant age made by a coralline red alga.
  • Higher fish and invertebrate richness inside parks than out, particularly in larger remote parks (including for the economically and ecologically important lobster and abalone).
  • After the overexpansion of urchin populations, urchin control programs have been successful in the recovery of kelp forests.
  • Smaller parks, and ones closer to human populations and ports, had lower richness of fish, suggesting that compliance and enforcement efforts will need to be greater for parks here (i.e. parks in Port Phillip Bay).
  • In the Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park fish species such as the Bluethroat Wrasse and Horseshoe Leatherjacket showed increases in number present since its declaration, indicating the benefits of no-take protection for fish populations.
  • The reappearance of western blue grouper at Port Phillip Heads and Surf Coast.
  • Particular habitats are over-represented inside parks across the state while sediment habitats tended to be under-represented. This confirms there are gaps within our current network.

Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park has even been recognised as a global ocean refuge to honour its strong protection of marine ecosystems and biodiversity.

Caption: 1 Discovery Bay Marine National Park
2 Merri Marine Sanctuary
3 The Arches Marine Sanctuary
4 Twelve Apostles Marine National Park
6 Eagle Rock Marine Sanctuary
5 Marengo Reefs Marine Sanctuary
7 Point Addis Marine National Park
8 Point Danger Marine Sanctuary
9 Barwon Bluff Marine Sanctuary
10 Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park
11 Point Cooke Marine Sanctuary
12 Jawbone Marine Sanctuary
13 Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary
14 Mushroom Reef Marine Sanctuary
15 Churchill Island Marine National Park
16 Yaringa National Park
17 French Island Marine National Park
18 Bunurong Marine National Park
19 Wilsons Promontory Marine National Park
20 Corner Inlet Marine National Parks
21 Ninety Mile Beach Marine National Park
22 Beware Reef Marine Sanctuary
23 Point Hicks Marine National Park
24 Cape Howe Marine National Park

So, what’s the problem with the current network?

At the time of the declaration the network was said to be comprehensive, adequate and a representative sample of the state’s marine habitats, based on the best available knowledge. But as we all know politics often gets in the way of good science and there were last minute deals done to ‘water down’ the parks. Some parks were reduced in size, and many critical areas worthy of protection were cut out of protection (fishing was a big driver).

As our knowledge of the significant marine values of what is in and around the parks has grown over the last 20 years, so to have several independent government assessments have reflected on the shortcomings of Victoria’s marine network. This includes: The State-wide Assessment of public Land (2017): ‘the existing system of no-take marine protected areas has some gaps in representation, and individual marine protected areas may not meet the adequacy criterion’

Disappointingly, the Andrews Government response explicitly ruled out consideration of new marine national parks: ‘The review will not include recommendations to expand Victoria’s marine protected area system. It is current government policy that no new marine national parks will be created’.

A 2010 review of Victoria’s marine protected areas (MPAs) found they did not meet national criteria of comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness. Both the 2013 and 2018 Victorian State of the Environment reports highlighted the limited protection afforded by current MPAs.

To address the problem, these reports continued to recommend the government ‘undertake a review for the comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness of Victoria’s marine protected areas.’

Despite the science and recommendations, we’ve seen a continued rejection and refusal to address this issue from our elected representatives. This has resulted in the legacy for Victoria as the second lowest state or territory with their waters as no-take marine protected areas – a mere 5.3 per cent of our coastline. Compare this to almost 18 per cent protection of our terrestrial environment.

This is highly alarming given the Federal Labor Government has signed Australia up to achieve 30 per cent protection of land and sea by 2030, with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals having set the bare minimum at 10 per cent protection.

This is a critical oversight given increased energy developments including oil, gas, offshore wind and electricity, as well as serious climate change risks. Our seas are often the first to feel the impacts of these changes, with our southern seas experiencing some the fastest warming on the planet.

Investing in marine protected areas leaves climate refuge areas for marine life to adapt, where they are given a helping hand to ward of invasive species, and given a break from extraction and development.

It is clear Victoria falls well short of our responsibilities as guardians for our marine world. We were once a world leader but are now woefully behind almost every other jurisdiction in Australia.

A case for additional protection

The Victorian marine environment is unique, with 80 per cent of its plants and animals found nowhere else on earth. Our current marine protected areas are a good start, but if we’re going to meet Australian and global standards, Victoria needs to step up and expand our marine park network.

We’ve already undertaken work to identify new areas worthy of protection to fill Victoria’s shortfalls. After working with leading scientists, collating and interpreting information from VNPA’s scientific Nature Conservation Review 2014, 20 priority areas needing protection were identified. These include some new areas, and the expansion of existing protected areas.

We first determined the degree of existing threats these areas face, established their conservation values (based on ecosystem resilience), ecosystem processes and their vulnerability to threats. The final step was to rate the conservation value of each area based on the distribution of important habitats they contain, their degree of ecosystem integrity, rarity and diversity.

These twenty priority areas include (see map below):

  1. Bridgewater Bay (aka Cape Bridgewater) – contains sediment beds and seagrass that are important habitats for many species of fish, crustaceans (including the threatened Ghost Shrimp) and other marine animals.
  2. Deen Maar (Lady Julia Percy Island) – home to an Australian fur seal breeding colony, is a rookery for the common diving petrel, and provides breeding habitat for the White-bellied Sea-eagle and Fairy Prion.
  3. Cape Otway – an extensive and highly complex reef system extending into the ocean and offering highly varied and unique physical habitat for a diverse range of species.
  4. The coast from Point Lillias to Point Wilson – contains seagrass and saltmarsh habitat of high conservation value. Saltmarshes support plants that can tolerate high soil salinity, high temperatures and occasional inundation by salt water, and are very important as food for aquatic species and for recycling nutrients. The area is also home to the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrot.
  5. The area from Point Wilson to Kirk Point – contains seagrass habitat. Seagrass strengthens the resilience of our bays. The area is currently unprotected and is at risk of degradation or destruction.
  6. Wedge Point – is an ideal sheltered environment for a unique drift algae community.
  7. The sheltered marine environment off Clifton Springs – contains flowering seagrass beds that support very high marine productivity.
  8. Point Nepean – contains significant Amphibolis seagrass habitat and is a dolphin refuge. The current boundary of Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park must be extended to encompass the full extent of seagrass habitat, and protect the dolphin refuge at Ticonderoga Bay. Point Nepean also has deep reef and canyon habitats that support highly diverse sponge gardens.
  9. The Flinders-Honeysuckle-Merricks coast – has significant reef areas that support colonies of iconic sea-dragons and species-rich Amphibolis seagrass meadows. This area has rare sea cucumbers present.
  10. Cape Schanck or Phillip Island – deep reefs, pinnacles canyons support incredibly diverse communities of sedentary invertebrates such as sponges, sea tulips and lace corals.
  11. Summerland Peninsula and Seal Rocks – are home to a seal breeding colony and include an important Great White Shark feeding area. They also have a penguin colony and mutton-bird rookery. Reef areas here are highly productive and support important kelp habitat. Kelp forests offer shelter, habitat and food to fish, sea snails, lace corals, sponges, crabs and many other species.
  12. Crawfish Rock – is a pinnacle reef with unique seaweed and invertebrate communities. There is a high diversity of sponges and hydroids. A listed hydroid species is only found on this rock. Covering a small area, this community is vulnerable to environmental changes in Western Port.
  13. The North Arm of Western Port Bay – contains significant and unique channel habitats, and supports extensive seagrass beds, mangrove and saltmarsh habitats. It also contains the Barrellier Island bird roost. The boundaries of the existing French Island, Yaringa and Churchill Island marine national parks must be extended to protect these critically important habitats.
  14. Bunurong Marine and Coastal Park – contains significant Amphibolis seagrass habitat and is home to the threatened sea cucumber Pentocnus bursatus. The crevice habitats here are unique in Victoria.
  15. Anderson Inlet – contains important sandflat and saltmarsh habitat. It is also important as a feeding, breeding and resting place for birds. Enclosed lagoon habitats and estuary grass (Ruppia) here are also of high conservation value.
  16. Ninety Mile Beach – has the most biologically diverse sediment beds in the world, and important reef areas. It is also a shorebird breeding habitat. The boundaries of the existing marine national park must be expanded to encompass these areas.
  17. The Gippsland Lakes – an area of high wetland bird diversity, has Ramsar listed wetlands of international significance and contains highly significant coastal and dune habitats. Seagrasses and Ruppia/estuarine grass, in addition to important coastal grasses and heath, are all found here. The lakes are also an important feeding, breeding and resting area for birds.
  18. The Bemm Reef – area experiences upwelling of sea water, and as a result is an area of extremely high marine diversity and productivity. It is home to significant filter-feeding communities and supports a great diversity of seaweeds.
  19. Mallacoota Inlet – is important as a feeding and roosting area for birds. The area has important sandflat and saltmarsh habitat, as well as Ruppia and lagoon habitats, and is of high conservation value.
  20. Gabo Island – is home to a penguin colony and seabird rookery. It supports a highly diverse invertebrate community and a high diversity of fish species, and is important for threatened species such as the White-bellied Sea-eagle, Humpback Whale and the Southern Right Whale.

Most of these priority areas identified by VNPA and expert marine scientists were also earmarked for protection in the original investigation that recommended the marine national parks and sanctuaries back in 2002.

Support is strong

The latest polling opinion poll commissioned by VNPA on marine national parks shows that the majority of Victorians support the expansion of marine national parks, with 80% of Victorians support expanding marine national parks .

How can the next Victorian Government step up for marine?

The Andrews Government has made some solid moves toward better management and planning for our coastline. The Marine and Coastal Policy 2020, the Marine and Coastal Strategy 2022, both include important steps to develop marine spatial planning – a tool that brings stakeholders together to work out how to use our shared marine space. But we cannot rely on policy alone to protect our waters. Spatially protecting marine areas is one of the best-known tools for conserving biodiversity and mitigating threats.

We’re calling on the next Victorian Government to address the shortfalls in the management and resourcing of our current network of marine national parks and sanctuaries and consider new areas for protection. We are asking for:

  1. Adequate funding provided and maintained for Parks Victoria’s marine program for the effective management of Victoria’s marine estate (this funding must actually be used for Park’s Victoria’s marine program). This includes ensuring Parks Victoria has enough resourcing for reducing the threats to marine biodiversity and includes: 

    – A significant investment in Parks Victoria’s in-water capacity to monitor and protect reefs from marine pests in marine national parks and sanctuaries across the state.

    – Effective compliance activities and education programs.

  2. The next Victorian Government to undertake a review of the current marine network: Implement the recommendations for a scientific review of Victoria’s marine protected areas for a network that is a comprehensive, adequate and representative of Victoria’s vast marine biodiversity and ecological values. VNPA has done significant work on this already that could be incorporated, as published in our Nature Conservation Review.

To read more about the 20th anniversary of marine national parks and sanctuaries visit:

The Victorian National Parks Association acknowledges the many First Peoples of the area now known as Victoria and honours their continuing connection to, and caring for, Sea Country.

Image: Karen Barwise

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