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What is the Australian coast?

In the preceding discussion it was assumed that the reader understood what was meant by the Australian coast. However, definitions of what is meant by 'the coast' vary at both global and national levels. In fact, one of the first tasks for the RAC Inquiry was to decide what definition it should use for the Australian coast. One of the reasons for the variation in coastal definitions is that scientific definitions become broader as they become more inclusive of those catchment- related or marine-related physical processes which affect the boundary zone between the sea and the land. Similarly, definitions from government or bureaucratic organisations vary considerably because each has its own purpose for defining the coast.

For example, the International Council of Scientific Unions' scientific study of global change (the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, IGBP) included a coastal scientific core project investigating the 'Land-Ocean Interaction in the Coastal Zone' (LOICZ). This LOICZ Science Plan defined the coastal zone as 'extending from the coastal plains to the outer edge of the continental shelves, approximately matching the region that has been alternately flooded and exposed during the sea level fluctuations of the late Quaternary period' (IGBP 1993). In the LOICZ Implementation Plan (Pernetta & Milliman 1995, p. 16) this coastal domain was referred to as being from 200 metres above to 200 metres below sea level. Another coastal process-related definition of the coast was given by Sorensen (1997): 'that part of the land affected by its proximity to the sea and that part of the ocean affected by its proximity to the land ... an area in which processes depending on the interaction between land and sea are most intense'. These broad scientific definitions attempt to include all the various processes influencing the coast. The LOICZ definition clearly recognising the importance of past processes, particularly the last two million years, in shaping our modem coastline.

Apart from the scientific definitions relating to coastal processes, there is also an issue of scientific measurement of the coast which can produce different length estimates for the same piece of coastline. For example, Galloway and Bahr (1979) noted that the official length of the Australian coastline was estimated as only 19 320 km in the 1974 Australian Handbook but 36 735 km in the 1974 Year Book of Australia (ABS 1974, A1S 1974). They studied various means and results of measuring coastline length and from statistical calculations concluded that 'the length is indeterminate but varies consistently with the accuracy of the measurement' (Galloway & Bahr 1979, p. 244). Of their various calculations, it is their higher figure of 69 630 km, based on 1 : 250 000 maps with a divider intercept of 0.1 km, which is used in recent official estimates, such as the 1996 Australian State of the Environment Report (State of the Environment Advisory Council 1996). This report also noted that the continental shelf adjacent to the Australian coast covers an area of some 2.5 million km2 and varies in width from 15 km to 400 km.

However, scientific definitions of the coastal zone based on coastal processes or coastal form are not usually practical for management purposes so that another suite of coastal definitions is designed for policy purposes. For example, the Environment Directorate of the international Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) suggests that the definition of the coastal zones should vary according to the nature of the problem being examined and the objectives of the management. This approach is reflected in the Commonwealth government's definition of the coastal zone, which states that: 'The boundaries of the coastal zone extend as far inland and as far seaward as necessary to achieve the policy objectives, with a primary focus on the land/sea interface' (Commonwealth of Australia 1992a, p. 2). This definition is quite different to various definitions used by state governments in Australia (see box 1.1).

Box 1.1 Various Australian state government definitions of the coast

New South Wales (Coastal Policy, 1997)

• 1 km coastal strip landward of the open coast high water mark

• a distance of 1 km around all bays, estuaries, coastal lakes, islands and tidal waters of coastal rivers

Note that the policy does not apply to the Greater Metropolitan Region, and the urban areas of Newcastle, Central Coast and Sydney are excluded.

Northern Territory (Coastal Management Policy, 1985)

The coastal zone of the Northern Territory comprises the sea, land and waterways close to, or interacting with, the coastline, including offshore islands and seas controlled by the Northern Territory Government.

Queensland (Coastal Protection and Management Act 1995)

The coastal zone includes coastal waters and all areas to the landward side of coastal waters in which there are physical features, ecological or natural processes that affect, or potentially affect, the coast or coastal resources. The coastal zone includes catchment areas where activities have impacts on coastal resources, as well as all the coastal waters of the state.

Tasmania (State Coastal Policy 1996; revised 1999 and legally challenged in 2002)

The coastal zone includes at least the following primary elements:

• the seabed, tidal waters and foreshore

• dunes, beaches, seacliffs, wave cut platforms and hardrock areas

• the water, plants and animals

• the atmosphere above

• wetlands, marshes, lagoons and swamps along and immediately inland of the coast

• associated areas of vegetation

• associated areas of animal habitats

• associated areas of human habitat and activity.

The zone extends seaward to the outer limits of the territorial sea, and extends inland to the extent necessary to embrace activities uses and developments which may have a significant effect on the amenity and environment of the coast as constituted by the primary elements listed above.

The zone extends inland to the extent necessary:

• to embrace proposed activities, uses and developments which in the opinion of the relevant planning authority may, if allowed to proceed, impact on the coast, and

• to achieve the principles, objectives and outcomes of this policy.

The difference between the Commonwealth and state definitions is indicative of differences in Commonwealth and state legislation and a variation in roles and responsibilities for coastal management. A major Commonwealth coastal inquiry into the coastal zone, conducted in 1993 by the Resource Assessment Commission (RAC), took the marine boundary to be the boundary of the Australian Fishing Zone, 200 nautical miles seaward of the low water mark. This area (approximately 9 million km2) is larger than the entire Australian land mass. The inquiry then used two operational definitions of the zone for identifying and describing the extent of resources and human activities in the coastal zone. It used an administrative definition when describing the extent of human uses and activities (1.318 million km2), but a definition based on recognisable drainage basins (1.327 million km2) when describing the extent of physical and biological resources (figures 1.2 and 1.3). Both of these definitions account for an area equivalent to about 17% of the Australian land mass (Resource Assessment Commission 1993).


This introductory chapter has illustrated that there is clearly a global imperative for coastal management that has the sustainable use of coastal resources as an underlying goal. This has become particularly important with the realisation that humans are now having a measurable impact on global change. Coastal

Figure 1.2 Definition of the Australian Coast based on administrative boundaries

Definition of the Australian Coast based on administrative boundaries

Figure 1.3 Definition of the Australian Coast based on catchment boundaries

Definition of the Australian Coast based on catchment boundaries

Source: after RAC 1993b

management needs to be integrative in ils approach, and participatory for stakeholders.

In Australia there has been considerable change in coastal management during the 1990s. This change, however, has not been uniform across all jurisdictions, so that some states have introduced new coastal legislation or policies whereas others still have outdated legislation or no central coastal authority. There have also been significant initiatives at the Commonwealth level following the most recent of numerous national coastal inquiries. Subsequent funding programs, such as the community-based Coastcare program, have assisted the momentum for change in Australian coastal management.

Finally, this chapter notes that it is difficult to discuss coastal management without first addressing the question, 'What is the coast?' It was pointed out that each state and the Commonwealth have different definitions of the coast for management purposes. However, there are also various scientific definitions of the coast, and even different estimates of the length of the Australian coast. Hence it is important to realise that the coast is defined differently for different purposes and, as noted for Tasmania, can become the subject of legal challenge.

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