Socio-Economic Context

The nine Regional Development Commissions Act regions of WA
The nine Regional Development Commissions Act regions of WA

The Western Australian economy is dominated by its rich resources sector and largely driven by the extraction and export of minerals (iron ore, gold, bauxite and alumina), petroleum products, liquefied natural gas (LNG) and agricultural commodities (wheat, wool, live animals). It provides almost half of Australia’s exports and has had sustained economic growth well above the national average in meeting increasing global demand for its primary commodities.

The state’s ongoing prosperity is closely aligned to the transformative economic growth of Asia’s largest nations. In the marine sector, rock lobsters are key to wild caught fisheries in WA, with strong demand from Asian markets, however in recent years supply has been reduced due to management responses to concerns over stock abundance in the Western Australian rock lobster fishery.

Since Western Australia IMOS extends from tropical through to subtropical zones the socio-economic drivers for ocean observing are broadly based on the regional divisions established by the Regional Development Commissions Act 1993.

Tropical North

Regionally, the tropical north has a high concentration of Australia’s essential resources - energy, mining and biodiversity. Attendant with that are high level risks and vulnerabilities from accidents and natural disasters. The region is both vast and remote. In the tropical north the WA-IMOS node includes the offshore waters of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The Ichthys Project is a joint venture between INPEX and TOTAL located in the Browse Basin off the northwest coast of WA and approximately 820km southwest of Darwin. Dredging operations for this project have made extensive use of the IMOS National Reference Station (NRS) mooring in Beagle Gulf for wave height and water quality monitoring. 

The Kimberley, one of the last remaining true wilderness areas on the planet, has the most pristine coastline in the Indian Ocean and hosts a raft of marine parks with strong connection between State marine parks and Commonwealth marine reserves. It also sits on vast reserves of natural energy and mineral resources. There is increasing investment by multinational corporations in the exploration and development of hydrocarbon resources which are ~ 200km from the coast, adjacent to deep water reefs and atolls.

The Brecknock, Calliance and Torosa fields, collectively known as the Browse Basin, are estimated to contain about 15 trillion cubic feet of dry gas and over 440 million barrels of condensate which will deliver billions of dollars in government revenue during its expected 50 year operations cycle. There remains uncertainty about hydrocarbon risk to local and remote environments rich in coral reefs and biodiversity (known habitat for marine turtles, whale nursery, dugongs and seabirds) and other industries (e.g. fishing, fish farming, tourism).

As the extraction of hydrocarbon progresses into deep water reserves, floating facilities anchored to the seabed are beginning to replace more traditional fixed platforms. Opportunities for aquaculture and tidal power schemes for remote communities are also being explored in this region. The area includes the valuable wild-caught pearl oyster fishery as well as hatchery-produced oysters that are used for pearl production. 

An emerging and increasing need in this region is to investigate and establish baselines for the potential anthropogenic threats resulting from new deep water developments, dredging, fishing and tourism. In order to determine the impact of industry activity and spill events on marine habitats adequate, fit-for-purpose baseline data against which post-spill observations can be compared to determine the extent, severity and persistence of the spill, and assess effectiveness of oil spill response is necessary, in addition a detailed understanding of oceanographic drivers of spill transport is required in order to model and predict spill trajectory and ‘zones of potential impact’.

Pilbara

The Pilbara is rich in iron ore, gold, copper, salt and offshore petroleum (including a range of hydrocarbons) and accounts for 20% of WA land mass but 80% of the total WA resources sector value and a significant contribution to the prosperity of the broader Australian economy.

Australian petroleum energy security is largely dependent on this key resources region in the northwest of WA, with the largest oil and gas field in the Carnarvon Basin of the North West Shelf. The oil and gas industry continues to expand with unprecedented growth and enormous investments in projects, construction and greenfields developments off WA. 

Pilbara Cities development plans to build on regional centres and increase populations in the northwest. There is a high likelihood of at least 4-5 seasonal tropical cyclones impacting the region every year leading to coastal inundation, infrastructure damage and loss of productivity for industries in the region.

Midwest and Gascoyne

The warm southward flow of the Leeuwin Current makes the waters on the WA continental shelf warmer throughout the year. This warm tropical water offshore is responsible for the most southerly true corals at the Abrolhos Islands and brings tropical marine species down the west coast and into the Great Australian Bight.

The Midwest Gascoyne covers more than one fifth of WA and ranks third for Gross Regional Product in WA, with mining, agriculture, fishing and tourism as key contributors. The 1500+km of varied coastline includes the World Heritage listed Shark Bay and Ningaloo Reef, the Abrolhos and other offshore islands also taking in the Cocos and Christmas Island Territories.

Exmouth Gulf and the coastal shelf to the north are known winter resting grounds for humpback whales from early June to late October every year. Offshore operations and oil and gas exploration are intensifying in this region and affect the marine environment with noise and traffic. The region also contains the most valuable fisheries off Western Australia, including Western Rock Lobster, prawn, scallop, abalone and western deep water trawl fishery. 

South West (including Perth Metropolitan Area)

The regions known as Perth, Peel, Wheatbelt and South West carry the majority of the Western Australian population. Approximately 1 million people are expected to move to the south west of Western Australia over the next 3 decades and there is already substantial development along the Perth to Dunsborough coast. This triggers the need for greater understanding of the impacts of climate change and variability on the sea conditions and coastal processes.

Rising sea levels and the changing intensity and frequency of storms impact flooding of coastal communities and eroding coastal infrastructure. There is also a need for understanding the future risks of inundation from tides and storm events as well as information for planning coastal structures such as groins and marinas.

Some 70-80 hotspots requiring coastal management review have been identified in need of action to remedy or retreat with costs estimated in the hundreds of millions. The challenges of drying climate, increasing population and minimising environmental impact are key drivers for the region. Climate resilience is a major part of the strategy requiring a balance of reducing water use, increasing the water recycled, and developing additional water sources.

An increase in shark attacks has resulted in a cull policy response implemented in January 2014 to protect the community. The uncertainty about shark numbers, movements, environmental factors and prey characteristics limits the use of existing information for long term management of this issue.

Tagging of undersize animals caught on drumlines could contribute considerable insight into management policies given the extensive acoustic infrastructure placed by the Department of Fisheries along metropolitan beaches and in collaboration with IMOS for the OTN curtain.

South Coast WA

There remains community pressure for marine parks to be established along the south coast as well as increasing interest and hydrocarbon exploration off the coast. Increasing interest in wave energy is also a key opportunity for the coastal towns in the region.

Across the southwest and south coast, major estuarine systems support local community values and important environments. These estuary systems are likely to change substantially with less catchment runoff and changing water levels.

The Southwest Marine Region report produced in 2006 provides an excellent analysis of the socio-economics of marine industries from Kangaroo Island in South Australia around to Shark Bay in WA.