Marine protected areas (MPAs) are sites in the ocean and coastal sea that are dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity, fisheries, ecosystem services and cultural values. MPAs range from small, highly protected marine reserves through to large, multiple-use marine parks, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park of Queensland, Australia. This chapter identifies the major policy events and phases of MPA development in Australia, and explores the role and effectiveness of MPAs in conserving Australia’s marine environment. The governance of Australian MPAs is complex; the responsibility for their declaration and management is shared between the Australian (Commonwealth), State and Territory Governments. Progress in the declaration and management of MPAs is not uniform across Australia, with some jurisdictions performing better than others. Australia is considered a world leader in the science and implementation of MPAs. However, there are serious weaknesses in the design of MPAs in Commonwealth waters due to the locating of new MPAs where they are least controversial and least costly. Considerable further effort is needed to create an effective national programme for delivering biodiversity conservation in Australia waters. This is particularly important because Australia’s oceans face an unprecedented set of pressures from accelerating climate change and coastal development.
Australia is responsible for one of the largest marine jurisdictions in the world, covering an area of more than 13.86 million km2. This domain stretches across about 45° of latitude from the tropical waters of the north to the sub-Antarctic waters of the Southern Ocean, and encompasses seabed, open ocean and shoreline ecosystems, and near-shore marine and estuarine waters. The marine environment is rich in biodiversity. Over 33 000 identified marine species live in Australian waters, including a large number of endemics.
Australia has a long history of establishing protected areas and they are now the cornerstones of its national and regional conservation strategies, covering over 13% of the country. There are large regional variations in levels of coverage, with most large protected areas placed far from dense human populations and away from productive agricultural land. Most of the recent growth in coverage has been driven by Indigenous Protected Areas and private protected areas, a trend that is likely to increase in the future. It is difficult to say how effective protected areas are in conserving biodiversity due to shortcomings in monitoring and evaluation, but the data that exist show that biodiversity outcomes are variable and that management effectiveness could be substantially improved. Threats to the protected area system are currently increasing with strong government pressure to allow extractive industries, such as mining, logging and grazing, and damaging recreational uses such as hunting to occur on land that is currently protected. If this trend continues, the future holds a great deal of uncertainty for Australia’s protected areas.
For centuries people all over the world have set aside places to which they ascribe special values. The reasons for this have been many and various but they are linked by a central purpose – to protect something that humankind perceives as valuable. Over the past century, as human populations have grown and their use of natural resources has increased, so the need to protect the remaining natural areas has also grown. Formally protected areas have become the centrepiece of the global strategy for nature conservation. These are areas where human activities are restricted and that are managed with the primary purpose of nature conservation (Dudley 2008). Australia is no exception in using protected areas as the cornerstones of its national and regional conservation strategies and is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The CBD is an international legally binding treaty that commits Australia to achieving a number of conservation targets.
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