NEWS 15 December 2021 |

The first-ever State of the Marine and Coastal Environment Report just released takes a deep dive into the health of Victoria’s unique seas and shores.

This historic assessment reports on environmental health and social indicators of five Victorian marine and coastal environments: Port Phillip Bay, Westernport Bay, Corner Inlet and Nooramunga, Gippsland Lakes and Victoria’s System of Marine National Parks and Sanctuaries.

It reveals how Victoria is tracking to look after the health of our marine and coastal environment, both across the state and in individual areas, and provides a guide for where we need to focus future investment and stewardship.

It assesses 82 indicators measuring everything from important fish species and their population numbers, water quality, and coastal vegetation condition, using the following criteria: current status (good, fair, poor, unknown), how the health is trending (improving, stable, deteriorating, unclear), and the level of data efficiency (high, moderate, low, unknown).

Unfortunately on the statewide level, it shows that the environmental health of Victoria’s marine and coastal environment is trending more towards deterioration, rather than improvement – or we simply don’t have enough information to tell.

When looking at the outlook of the health status of particular places, out of the five areas assessed, Westernport Bay has the highest number of health indicators that are deteriorating, followed by Corner Inlet and Nooramunga.

On a more positive note, 40 per cent of indicators are rated as fair, with our Victoria’s System of Marine National Parks and Sanctuaries having the highest number of indicators rated in good condition, followed by Port Phillip Bay.

Some places such a Port Phillip Bay have more data to report on, while other areas are heavily lacking in data, making it clear that much greater investment is needed to both report on and protect our marine and coastal environments across the state.

Let’s take a deeper dive into what the current health and future trends are for the whole state and for the five places measured. There are different stories that emerge depending what species or habitat we are looking at, some doing well, others not so much.

Across Victoria on a statewide level:

  • It is clear Victoria’s marine and coastal environmental health when measured on a statewide level is largely deteriorating – or we don’t have enough information to tell.
  • The current health status on a statewide level has 40 per cent of indicators rated fair, 20 per cent rated good, 16 per cent rated as poor, and 24 per cent with not enough data.
  • The future of Blacklip Abalone is at risk with numbers deteriorating, mostly due to the impact of a virus.
  • Little penguins continue to thrive on Phillip Island (estimated at 32,000) and around the St Kilda breakwater (estimated at 1,400).
  • Migratory shorebirds are declining across all areas (does not have enough data to assess).
  • The status and trends of conservation concern (for example listed under threatened species laws) are a mystery because there is insufficient evidence to assess.
  • Coastal, wetland and estuarine vegetation is fair to good across the state except for the Gippsland Lakes which is in poor condition.
  • There is limited data on several coastal ecological vegetation classes in protected areas across the state.
  • Threats that marine pests pose to native habitats and species continue to escalate.
  • Greater collaboration is required among Victorian Government agencies to manage current threats to coastal fringe ecosystems at risk from climate change (salt marsh, mangroves, seagrasses).
  • Citizen science has been rated as fair. Although evidence shows many committed volunteer groups that contribute to protecting, conserving and improving marine and coastal environments, less than six per cent of Australians who volunteer are involved in environmental activities.
  • It’s clear that the area with the most data to measure is Port Phillip Bay, with significant gaps across all other areas measured (excluding marine national parks and sanctuaries).
  • More investment is needed in our marine and coasts!

Westernport Bay

  • The highest number of indicators rated as deteriorating – highlighting that this area needs greater attention.
  • Snapper, important for recreational fishing, and seals are deteriorating.
  • The small resident population of 20 dolphins are stable.
  • Marine and coastal waterbirds are deteriorating.
  • Significant areas of seagrass beds have been lost, with current status rated in poor condition but trending towards improving.
  • Mangrove condition has not been able to be assessed.

Gippsland Lakes

  • Commercially and recreationally important fish species Black Bream and Dusky Flathead are doing very poorly.
  • The population of up to 100 dolphins has suffered significant mortality recently, linked with severe bushfire effects in the region and associated with skin infections observed on several dolphins.
  • Coastal, wetland and estuarine vegetation status is assessed as poor.

Port Phillip Bay

  • The second highest number of indicators rated in good condition (after Marine National Parks and Sanctuaries).
  • The population of dolphins in Port Phillip Bay are stable.
  • There is a pattern of fewer fish species in the north of the bay and more in the south, particularly around the entrance to the bay. During the past decade, there has been a decline in the number of fish species in the north and a slight increase in the number of species in southern Port Phillip Bay.
  • King George Whiting populations are stable, but southern sand flathead are doing poorly.
  • There have been considerable losses in seagrass with the future trend unknown.

Corner Inlet and Nooramunga

  • The second highest number of indicators rates as deteriorating (after Westernport Bay).
  • Considerable losses in seagrass have been observed here, but future trends are forecast to improve.
  • Status of marine pests is good here, with very few found.

Marine National Parks and Sanctuaries

  • The highest number of indicators rated in good condition.
  • The ‘Conservation of Marine Ecosystems in Protected Areas’ indicator includes new Parks Victoria data showing the condition of natural values as good or very good in 93 per cent of marine parks.
  • The condition of large mobile fish (including sharks and rays) on subtidal reefs in marine national parks and sanctuaries beyond Port Phillip Bay was assessed as good in 14 parks, fair in one and unknown in one.
  • Point Addis Marine National Park at Anglesea reported more than 3.5 times the abundance, and 4.5 times the number of legal rock lobsters inside the park than outside, suggesting that the Point Addis Marine National Park may be increasing the supply of lobsters to surrounding waters that are open to fishing.
  • Alarming declines in the previously dominant species, Golden Kelp, have unfortunately been found here.
  • The condition and extent of macroalgae (an important food source and habitat) on subtidal reefs in Port Phillip Bay has been assessed as poor for Point Cooke and Jawbone marine sanctuaries, fair for Ricketts Point Marine Sanctuary, and good for Port Phillip Heads Marine National Park.

What happens now?

The report has made some recommendations for improving future marine and coastal management and reporting. This includes the use of spatial information and Earth observation to help identify and protect Victoria’s marine assets, and ensuring the Victorian Government continues to implement existing policies and management plans to benefit the environment.

It is clear there are still huge knowledge gaps that limit the ability to manage certain areas well. This comes back to the lack of investment in our marine and coastal environments.

This is not the only report to recognise this, with the recent Parliamentary Inquiry into Ecosystem Decline in Victoria report’s number one recommendation that the Victorian Government consider referring a Parliamentary inquiry into the health of rivers, waterways and the marine environment.

Our marine and coasts, given the enormous services they provide for us, are in desperate need of more stewardship – some areas more so than others.

Background on the State of the Marine and Coastal Environment Report

The report is prepared according to Victoria’s Marine and Coastal Act 2018 which commits the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability to issuing a five-yearly state of the marine and coastal environment reports. The Commissioner’s report released is the first under the Act and builds on the 2016 State of the Bays Report.

The next iteration of this report in 2024 will look at the entire coastline rather than the five areas.

You can view the report here.