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Monitoring coastal marine habitats and waterways: Government and community partnerships in action

Brad Zeller1, Andrew Petroeschevsky2 and Christina Dwyer2

1Qld Fisheries Service, Department of Primary Industries, GPO Box 46, Brisbane, Qld 4001
Natural Resource Sciences, Department of Natural Resources and Mines, 80 Meiers Road, Indooroopilly, Qld 4068


A collaborative inter-agency Project is being progressed to review existing methods and develop and document new standardised protocols appropriate for community-based monitoring of a range of marine and estuarine habitats. Monitoring coastal habitats through partnerships with the community supported by expert mapping, training, scientific research and advisory functions of government, is becoming integral to assessment of the health of coastal habitats and management of coastal resources. Partnerships between agencies and the community including Seagrass-Watch and Waterwatch networks have developed best practice models for community- based habitat monitoring. Basic mapping and monitoring standards currently under development in this Project will provide additional tools for collaborative long-term monitoring of coastal habitats.


The human population of Queensland is increasing. Projected estimates for the State indicate an increase from 1996 of almost 70% to 5.7 million people by 2031 (DLGP 1996). It is expected that more than 90% of the increase will be in and around major centres of the coastal zone (Zeller 1998). An increase in numbers of people brings with it increasing demand for residential areas, transport, industry and port infrastructure and waste disposal. These developments are evident in major regional centres along the Queensland east coast and are necessary to maintain quality of life for coastal communities. However, environmental impacts associated with coastal developments can be significant and cumulative and may over an extended time frame.

While some impacts on natural resources are often inevitable, mitigation of the level of impact that can be achieved is, to a major extent, driven by the perceptions of the community. There is an expectation among communities that government will act responsibly to ensure that development of coastal areas is sustainable and that unnecessary destruction of natural ecosystems are prevented. Community concern over physical loss and reduced quality of the habitats and waterways that sustain native wildlife and fish populations has led to greater awareness of the level of mitigation of impacts that is feasible. In an effort to further reduce environmental impacts on coastal habitats and waterways, coastal communities have shown a willingness to participate in the management of coastal ecosystems within their local area.

Through partnerships including the Waterwatch and Seagrass-Watch networks, community members with common interests have banded together to help protect habitats from further human disturbance and maintain those natural habitats that remain. The enthusiasm shown by community-based networks involved in coastal zone management is recognised by the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. With support from the Natural Heritage Trust’s Coast and Clean Seas Program and the Cooperative Research Centre for the Coastal Zone, Estuary and Waterway Management, a collaborative Project is under way to provide monitoring methods for extension of existing community-based monitoring projects in critical estuarine and marine habitats.

This paper aims to describe the Project in terms of its major goals, extension methods used to achieve this goal and progress to date. Specific examples of habitats and indicators for which monitoring methods are being developed are given and the nature of existing monitoring partnerships relevant to the project are discussed. Expected project outcomes are outlined against critical components required for community monitoring to assist coastal management and in conclusion future action is outlined relevant to the needs of the community and government.


The major goals for the Project are to:

  1. review existing methods used for monitoring a range of marine and estuarine habitats,
  2. develop and document new standardised protocols for community-based monitoring of these habitats and
  3. distribute a package of monitoring protocols to users via suitable electronic and print media.

The Project follows is planned around the Action Learning Cycle (ALC) (Kolb 1984) which has been used by the Project team to maximise effective learning at a number of levels. The ALC is being used to sequence processes that address project goals, providing feedback to project staff and providing new directions that will help project outcomes match project goals. In addition, the ALC is used to structure learning experiences for both community groups and project staff engaged in field trials for the monitoring methods. This is we believe, leading to deeper and richer learning for trial participants and the project team.


The Project commenced in March 2000 with the signing of an inter-agency project funding agreement between the Queensland and Commonwealth governments. Coastal monitoring community networks were identified in a previous project report to the Natural Heritage Trust, Fisheries Action Program (Goyne et al. 1999). The outputs from regional workshops and mail and telephone surveys involving community-based monitoring groups were used as resource material in planning for further community engagement in this Project. Expressions of interest to participate were invited from these groups to maximise their exposure to the Project’s proposed benefits.

A Project Steering Group constituted by the agency and funding partners was established to provide strategic advice during the life of the project. The complex nature of the tasks ahead required a full-time suitably trained Project Officer to drive and coordinate complex tasks associated with:

• community consultation and training in monitoring methods,

• practical assessment (evaluation) of monitoring methods through collaborative field trials,

• documentation and refinement of monitoring protocols for publication and dissemination,

• effective communication between community groups engaged in method testing, community-based coastal monitoring networks including Waterwatch and Seagrass-Watch and project agency partners and

• satisfactory delivery of outcomes expected by community and agency partners.

The project is planned to continue until July 2002.


The Project involves a number of collaborative activities, that when completed will provide a compilation of practical, robust monitoring protocols suitable for community use in coastal ecosystems. It is envisaged that the final protocols will cater for the different levels of skill, knowledge and resources available to the community groups wishing to use them. Project activities are coordinated so that a number of processes are running in parallel. This is partly a function of the resources available to undertake simultaneous tasks and partly due to an aim that value is added to each process through continual feedback and adjustment of activities to achieve the most productive outcomes.

The major activities undertaken within the life of the Project are:

• a review of literature available on indicators of the status and health of coastal ecosystems and scientific and community-based monitoring protocols,

• selection of monitoring methods that will yield useful information for management of coastal habitats including mangrove forests, saltmarshes, seagrasses, melaleuca wetlands, riparian vegetation and estuarine waterways

• modification and documentation of monitoring methods for use by local communities

• selection of a subset of six community groups to train and field test draft monitoring methods in tropical, sub-tropical and temperate regions of the Queensland east coast

• an evaluation survey of subset groups to provide feedback on the methods tested and suggest improvements (eg. further training needs)

• regular project updates to interested community groups and local councils not involved with the trials but which may have involvement later in the project through regional workshops.

Project outputs

The main output of the Project will be documentation of robust monitoring methods for marine and estuarine habitats by expanding the existing ‘Estuarine Waters Assessment’ module of the Waterwatch Queensland Technical Manual developed through Commonwealth and Queensland government funding and support (Anon 1994). This module will provide a resource tool for community groups that will better enable them to monitor and contribute effectively to management of their local estuarine and marine environments. It is envisaged that the module will be available to the community through the Waterwatch network and more broadly via the Internet.


To date over 30 potential community-based monitoring methods for a range of marine and estuarine habitats have been identified (Table 1). These are either existing methods used by community groups or simplified scientific monitoring methods. Each method is subject to a rigorous review process by scientists, community members and resource managers to determine their practical adaptation to local community group use, accuracy and precision of the data collected and its relevance for management purposes. With limited suitable information available on practical use of some methods, priorities will be set in the near future to deliver robust monitoring methods on those habitats most under threat from human disturbance.

Table 1. Community marine monitoring — potential monitoring methods


Indicator measured

Method in use*

Algal Beds

species composition and distribution



wader and raptor species and numbers


Coral Reefs

coral cover
diversity of key fish species


Exotic species

distribution and new outbreak locations



community structure


Historical Change

air photo interpretation


Instream Habitat

channel cross-sections
instream structures


Mangroves and salt marshes

mangrove structure
stem densities and live v dead ratio
mangrove leaf productivity
dieback recovery
leaf area index
crab activity


Ocean and Estuarine Shores

rubbish and debris type, number and weight
wader and raptor species counts
benthic fauna


Riparian Vegetation

width, continuity and community composition
berm height


Rocky Reefs

grazing snails and hermit crabs



percent cover and species composition



grain size
accumulation/erosion rate


Water Quality

Secchi depth
Chlorophyll a sample collection
pH, salinity and temperature


Wetlands and Melaleuca Communities

leaf productivity
ground water depth and quality (pH, salinity)
surface water quality
inundation depth and frequency
percent cover of vegetation spp


* Method adopted from an existing community monitoring program

A number of these methods are currently being field tested with community groups at Moreton Bay, Sunshine Coast, Capricorn Coast, Port Douglas and Townsville (Figure 1).

Project outputs are being disseminated to other trial and non-trial community monitoring groups and networks and local councils through a regular newsletter the Community Marine Monitoring News that provides regular updates during the project. The sharing of information is this way enhances learning among stakeholders creating interest in further use of the methods under refinement. Several local government councils have expressed interest in the results of the field trials. Local governments are a potential end user of community-sourced data for strategic planning, and environmental monitoring and reporting purposes. In some instances councils provide assistance to community groups and in doing so help members to develop a deeper commitment to local area management.

Figure 1. The RIVER group field testing a monitoring method that assesses the condition of mangrove seedlings near Townsville. Photo by David Reid.


In Queensland, establishing and maintaining a successful habitat monitoring program involves many challenges. With a long coastline (nearly 10 000 km: Hopley 1993) and limited resources, agencies are stretched to deliver ongoing environmental monitoring programs to aid coastal zone management. There is potential for major gaps in monitoring to be covered by providing communities the tools and support to participate in well designed monitoring programs.

Much of the data that can be provided through community-based monitoring is not being collected elsewhere. Agencies and research organisations have a significant commitment to scientific monitoring throughout coastal Queensland, however these projects are often limited in spatial extent and contained within a relatively short time frame. Where longer term monitoring in conducted by agencies, communities can provide more detailed information at a local level. This information can supplement that collected by government for reporting on the condition and trend of coastal marine habitats (Zeller 1998, Lee Long et al. 2000, McKenzie et al. 2000).

In Queensland, community-based monitoring networks have been developed and are maintained through effective partnerships between community and government. The Seagrass-Watch network provides a cooperative framework between government and the community for conservation of seagrass habitats, with a strong focus on community participation in monitoring specific indicators to provide a reliable early warning system of the status of seagrass resources (McKenzie et al. 2000). Waterwatch is a network striving to achieve a shared responsibility and collective action for natural resource management through collaboration and partnerships between community and government. It achieves this through maintaining a national water quality monitoring network (Dwyer and Wissing 2001). The use of community-generated monitoring data for environmental reporting and management purposes is being widely acknowledged. (eg. Moss et al. 1997; Anon 1999; Dwyer and Wissing 2001).

Currently, few standard methods are widely available for community-based coastal habitat mapping and monitoring. Coles et al. (1995) provide a best practice model for seagrass resources while freshwater water quality monitoring procedures have been documented in the Waterwatch Queensland Technical Manual (Anon 1994). One of the main outputs of this Project will be to update the Manual to increase the capacity of community groups to monitor suitable indicators in a number of major estuarine and marine habitats. By field-testing with groups and documenting a range of methods based on outcomes from the field trials (Table 1), groups will have access to practical guidelines that will be easy to interpret and provide flexibility in the habitat types they choose to monitor.

Monitoring provides opportunities for community members to participate in the management of coastal ecosystems. Best practice community-based monitoring projects will:

  • increase community understanding of the connectivity between coastal, estuarine and catchment issues,
  • generate data on the status and health of coastal ecosystems and
  • provide a focus for communities and government to work together in managing the coastal zone sustainably.

To ensure that monitoring with the protocols being developed in this Project are also relevant to the needs of coastal managers, there must be a careful matching of management and community expectations to avoid a series of isolated or disconnected projects that may not meet the needs of either party.

Jacoby (1996) outlines the following critical components that link environmental monitoring with coastal zone management.

  • Observation: measurement of indicators chosen to address the efficacy of management, inputs into a system, the state or functioning of a system.
  • A Database: a useable system to permanently hold and access large amounts of data.
  • Models: the means to analyse, test and interpret observations.
  • Links to management actions: feasible management options that will be put in place if the results and interpretations of the monitoring indicate there is a need.
  • Evaluation of management actions: a means to determine if management is being effective (this should result from a cycle of observation, analysis, testing and interpretation).
  • A Feedback mechanism: a way to present results and interpretations to relevant stakeholders, managers and scientists in a form that promotes improvements in 1, 2, 3 and 4.
  • A Feedout mechanism: a program to disseminate the results and implications of monitoring to the general public as well as those stakeholder groups identified in 6 that are not directly involved in management of a local area (this effort ensures a high quality program that remains visible and accountable).

It should be noted that the Project directly addresses only the first component. Addressing all components during the planning phase of a monitoring project will maximise benefits to both the community and management agencies involved.


Partnerships in coastal monitoring recognise sources of natural, human, social and economic capital in coastal areas and provide a mechanism for communities to learn about issues relating to sustainability of local habitats under threat from development. Through monitoring, communities are able to take greater responsibility for stewardship of their local environment while enhancing their capacity to contribute more effectively to management of coastal ecosystems. Of increasing significance, is the application of standardised community-based monitoring methods in providing knowledge to management agencies to reduce uncertainty in decision-making. While large data gaps exist, continued support from government and the community are fundamental to providing rigorous long-term data series on ecological indicators for improved management of coastal habitats and waterways at a local level.


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  2. Anon. (1999). Queensland Seagrass-Watch News. Issue 4, November 1999.
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  12. Moss, A., Cox, M., Choy, S. and Marshall J. (1997). Maroochy and Mooloolah Catchments: Water Quality Study 1997. Environmental Technical Report No. 29, June 1997. Environmental Protection Agency, Brisbane.
  13. Zeller, B. (1998). Queensland’s Fisheries Habitats: Current Condition and Recent Trends. Information Series, QI98025. Department of Primary Industries Queensland, 211pp.

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