Biodiversity in Australian Marine Parks

Protecting and conserving biodiversity is the main goal of Australian Marine Parks.

Biological diversity (‘biodiversity’) is a term often used in environmental research and management, but what does it mean, why does it matter and how do we know about it?

What does biodiversity mean?

Biodiversity describes the variety of life on earth; all the different plants, animals and micro-organisms, the genetic information they contain, the ecosystems they form and the ecological processes that sustain them. Biodiversity includes four main components:

  • Genetic diversity refers to the genetic variation that occurs among members of the same species – this is a requisite for evolutionary adaptation to changing environment.
  • Species diversity refers to the variety of different species (e.g. pink snapper, humpback whale, giant kelp, green turtle) or other taxonomic groups (e.g. fish, sponges, corals, molluscs, seaweeds) in an ecosystem.
  • Ecosystem diversity refers to the variety of biological communities that exist on earth e.g. coral reef, rainforest, open ocean or soft sediment environment.
  • Functional diversity refers to the variety of biological processes and functions that exist in a particular ecosystem e.g. different processes for gaining nutrition such as filter feeding, grazing, photosynthesis, predation or scavenging.

The more genetic, species, ecosystem and functional diversity that exists in the world, the better off we, and our environment, will be. Biodiversity helps sustain healthy ecosystems which are better able to withstand change and recover from natural and anthropogenic disturbances.

Why does biodiversity matter?

In the natural environment, various species depend on each other. For example seagrass species rely on gastropods to graze upon the epiphytes that grow on their blades, as this keeps them clean and able to maximise the light energy they can absorb for photosynthesis. The three dimensional structure of seagrass in turn provides habitat for the gastropods, and many other species besides.

Many such relationships exist between different plant and animal species, and this creates a complex web of interactions. The more diversity of plants and animals there is, the more interactions there are, and this complexity decreases the likelihood that the breakdown of any single interaction will cause lasting effects across the ecosystem, because species will be able to rely on a wealth of other interactions instead.

If the species of grazing gastropod in the example above was removed by predation or disease, the growth of the seagrass would decline and impact the entire ecosystem. However in a biodiverse seagrass ecosystem there are typically multiple different species of gastropods and isopods that graze on epiphytes, and thus the loss of any one species will not break the system.

As the pressures on the natural environment increase as a result of human resource-use and natural events such as cyclones, the conservation of biodiversity is fundamental for ecosystems to maintain their ability to be resilient to change.

Biodiversity is also important for human well-being, as it forms the building blocks for the many goods and services that the natural environment provides. Biodiversity supports healthy and functioning ecosystems that deliver us the oxygen we breath, the water we drink and the food we eat. Biodiversity is recognised for its recreational value, as people enjoy activities such as diving, fishing and nature watching, and it is closely linked to culture, especially for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

How do we know what biodiversity exists in our marine parks?

Increasing our knowledge of the biodiversity that exists in our marine parks is a crucial first step to effective management and conservation. Yet we currently know only a small fraction of the species diversity that exists in our marine parks. The parks cover an extensive area of ocean, are often remote and difficult to access, and many regions are also very deep – well beyond the capabilities of most monitoring technologies. However, with significant investment from government and research agencies across the country, an increasing level of information about biodiversity in our oceans is becoming available through resources such as:

  • the Atlas of Living Australia which is Australia's national biodiversity database. It provides free online access to species and environment data and a range of tools that supports research, environmental monitoring, conservation planning, education and citizen science
  • the Australian Ocean Data Network which provides an interoperable online network of marine and climate data resources
  • Fishes of Australia records the diversity and biology of Australia's marine and freshwater fishes. This database provides information on identification, distribution, classification, biology and relevant literature for known species
  • AlgaeBase is a global database for information on algae and seagrasses, documenting the distribution, classification and relevant literature for species worldwide
  • Seamap Australia is a national database for spatial information on seafloor habitats on Australia's continental shelf. It provides free access to seafloor habitat maps and a range of other relevant spatial layers such as AUV and Reef Life Survey seafloor imagery
  • the GlobalArchive initiative provides information collated from baited underwater stereo system (BRUVS) surveys across the globe, including location, date, survey methodology and acquired species information
  • biologically important areas - these provide information on the distribution on some of our protected species and where they display important behaviours such as breeding, foraging and migration
  • Reef Life Survey is a worldwide citizen science program that engages recreational SCUBA divers to record the marine life on coral and rocky reef using standardised scientific methods. The Reef Life Survey database provides occurrence and diversity information on reef fishes and invertebrates across the globe
  • RedMap is the Range Extension Database and Mapping project, and this database invites marine users to spot, log and map marine species that are uncommon in Australia, or to particular regions and areas of the Australian coastline. The database is important for documenting biological changes in marine ecosystems, particularly those associated with natural and human-induced disturbances through time
  • Squidle is a platform to facilitate the exploration, management and annotation of marine imagery. While it does not directly supply biodiversity data, it provides a standardised framework within which to obtain this data from different image-based marine monitoring technologies
  • Fishmap is a tool that provides information on the expected distribution of Australian fish species according to the depth, location and distance from the Australian coastline. It represents the current known limits of occurrence for many species based on the best validated evidence and expert knowledge
  • XL Catlin Sea Survey is a program that is creating a baseline record of the world’s coral reefs using high-resolution 360-degree panoramic vision. The imagery captured during surveys can provide information on species occurrence, density and health, and is useful for change detection, monitoring and management.

As monitoring techniques and technologies are constantly improved and developed, these datasets continually grow and new ones will be added.