Australia is a marine nation. First Nations people have deep and unbroken connections to sea, 85% of us live within 50km of the coast, and our ocean territory is twice that of our land mass.
A large part of our economy – the “blue economy” – depends on the sea: tourism, ports, energy, transport, fisheries and aquaculture, and emerging industries like renewable energy, offshore aquaculture, and biotechnology.
Together, these industries are worth more than A$80 billion a year. By 2025, this figure may be $100 billion.
To manage our oceans and coasts to support a growing blue economy means we need to understand them, and that means we need science. At the National Marine Science Committee (NMSC), we have surveyed how well Australia is delivering this science. As we show in a new report, the story is mixed.
The NMSC is Australia’s peak body for marine research. Its members are almost 40 universities, research institutions and state and federal agencies.
In 2015, the Committee created a blueprint for growing Australia’s blue economy: the National Marine Science Plan: 2015-25.
This plan identified seven grand challenges facing our marine estate:
marine sovereignty and security
sustainable urban coastal development
climate change adaptation
equitable, balanced resource allocation.
The plan also made eight recommendations involving initiatives, investment, and priorities to address the challenges.
We are now halfway through the plan’s ten-year scope. While many of the recommendations are on track, others need some work.
The report card
Our oceans face unique challenges, from climate change to managing increasing resource use. Despite pandemic disruptions, scientific progress has continued.
Highlights from the past five years include increasing Australia’s marine research capacity with a new icebreaker for working in the Antarctic and operation of the research ship RV Investigator for 300 days at sea. Coastal research vessels have also continued operations, and the Integrated Marine Observing System has expanded.
The new report shows science has already helped deliver better outcomes for the blue economy, through things like strategies for fishery harvesting to balance consumer demands with economic and ecological sustainability.
The report also identifies further steps needed to ensure all recommendations are fulfilled. It offers three new recommendations, too.
First, integrate the knowledge, rights, capabilities, and aspirations of Traditional Owners into conventional marine science.
Second, establish national policy guidelines for open access to government-funded or regulatory data. This would include access to historical datasets and expand the Australian Ocean Data Network.
And third, develop an approach to increase the resilience of our coasts.
An unprecedented opportunity
After the economic shock of the pandemic, there is enormous interest in Australia’s blue economy and our ocean health. This can be realised via national and international initiatives and funding focused on sustainable growth.
The Australian government has joined 13 other nations in the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy committing to sustainably manage 100% of their marine estates by 2025.
This year also kicks off the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. The world’s eyes will be on the oceans for the next ten years.
Since 2015, Australia has been building its national marine science capability. Recent initiatives include the Reef Trust Partnership, Blue Economy Cooperative Research Centre (CRC), Marine Bioproducts CRC, investments in marine and coastal science under the National Environmental Science Program, and the [Australian Ocean Leadership Package].
The foundations are there, and the task now is to strengthen and embed our marine science sovereign capability.
A call to action
The report calls on actions from broad sectors of society to ensure Australia’s blue economy continues to grow. It asks:
the research community to build on and amplify existing resources to establish truly national research programs that incorporate all stakeholder needs
industry to work with marine scientists and governments to ensure science underpins operational decision-making, risk assessments and future planning, and to create efficient, sustainable businesses
government to focus on and invest in the blue economy as an important plank in post-COVID economic recovery and a way to create long-term social, cultural and environmental benefits
the community to recognise the responsibility we all share as a marine nation, and to play an active role in ensuring the long-term health of our oceans and coasts for all Australians.
With a strong blue economy, we can chart a course through the uncertainties of the future and create long-term prosperity for all Australians.
This article was written in conjunction with Dr David Smith, Chair of the National Research Providers Network for Fisheries and Aquaculture.