Australia has one of the world’s largest marine estates that includes many vulnerable habitats and a high biodiversity, with many endemic species crossing a wide latitudinal range. The marine estate is used by a variety of industries including fishing, oil & gas, and shipping, in addition to traditional, cultural, scientific and recreational uses. The Commonwealth government manages the Australian Marine Parks (AMPs), the largest network of marine protected areas in the world (Cochrane 2016). These marine parks complement existing networks in State and Territory waters.

Monitoring the impacts of these uses on the marine environment is a massive shared responsibility that can only be achieved by making the best use of all the information that is collected. Australia has a number of significant long-term marine monitoring and observing programs (Table 1), as well as a national ocean data network ( Without some common and agreed standards, information collected may not be comparable with other areas or sectors. This may reduce its value to regional and national management, while the individual project or survey may lose the opportunity to interpret results in a regional or national context.

Australia is uniquely placed to develop standardised national approaches to monitor the marine environment. This objective integrates with one of the eight high-level priorities identified by the National Marine Science Plan (2015-25): the establishment of national baselines and long-term monitoring. Standardised national approaches will also contribute to the effective coordination across the marine science and observing community (including industry and citizen scientists). Such coordination has been recognised as integral to a governance system for sustained and effective monitoring in Australia’s marine environment (Hayes et al. 2015) and yet was identified as highly variable and frequently inadequate in the 2016 State of the Environment Report (Evans et al. 2017). In order to facilitate objective and robust conclusions about the status and trends of the marine ecosystems, it is crucial that sampling methods are as consistent as possible while still allowing for practical differences among equipment, vessels, and weather conditions. This need for consistent methodology has been identified in several reports on regional and national marine monitoring frameworks (Hedge et al. 2013, Bowden et al. 2015, Hayes et al. 2015), and its contribution to supporting a blue economy is also recognised (Golden et al. 2017).

Although many biological monitoring programs focus on single elements of the marine environment (e.g. Wraith et al. 2013), several large-scale marine monitoring programs that include multiple areas are currently under development or implementation in Australian waters. Table 1 lists some of these programs, as well as the associated indicators to be measured or sampling platforms if specified. Standardised marine monitoring has been done successfully in Australian waters for shallow waters (e.g. underwater visual census in Reef Life Survey) and pelagic animals (e.g. acoustic tagging in IMOS Animal Tracking Facility), but it has yet to be developed, implemented, and adopted at a national scale for most other biological sampling platforms (but see IMOS AUV Facility in Table 1).

Table 1: Large-scale biological or ecological monitoring programs currently operating or under development in Australia as of Dec 2017. UVC = underwater visual census, DOV = diver-operated video, ROV = remotely operated vehicle, AUV = autonomous underwater vehicle, BRUV = baited remote underwater video, MBES = multibeam echosounder.

Program Region Indicator Sampling Platforms Example Reference
Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) Global Plankton assemblages, colour index CPR Hosie et al. 2003
IMOS Animal Tracking Facility National Marine megafauna movement Acoustic telemetry, satellite tracking Taylor et al. 2017
IMOS Ships of Opportunity National Temperature, salinity, water column backscatter, biochemistry Bathythermograph, echosounder, biogeochemical and meteorological sensors Alory et al. 2007
IMOS National Reference Stations National Nutrients, microbes, phytoplankton, zooplankton, environmental factors Moored sensors, water sampling Sloyan and O’Kane 2015
RIMREP GBR Various Various (TBC) GBRMPA 2015
Marine Estate Management Authority NSW Various Aerial imagery, UVC, BRUVs, AUVs, towed imagery, grabs, DOVs, ROVs NSW Government 2017
WAMSI estuary science program WA Various Various (TBC) Thomson et al. 2017
Reef Life Survey Global Demersal fish and benthic invertebrate assemblages UVC Stuart-Smith et al. 2017
Long-Term Monitoring Program (AIMS) GBR and NW Australia Fish and benthic invertebrate assemblage, coral health and cover UVC, DOV, Towed imagery De’ath et al. 2012
IMOS AUV Facility National Benthic invertebrate assemblages AUV Perkins et al. 2017
VIC Signs of Healthy Parks monitoring program VIC Various UVC, drone/UAV, AUV, BRUVS, ROV, towed video, aerial photography Parks Victoria’s Technical Series
WA marine monitoring program WA Various Various Dept Biodiv Conserv Attractions 2017
NESP field manual package* National Various MBES, AUV, BRUV, Towed camera, Sled/trawls, Grab/corer, ROV Current study

*Primarily benthic and demersal platforms, but also includes an emergent pelagic method (Pelagic BRUVs)

Due to the large geographic area, diverse flora and fauna, and range of environmental conditions represented by the Australian Marine estate, a single method of sampling is neither practical nor desirable (Bouchet et al. 2018, Przeslawski et al. 2018). For this reason, we present a standard approach for each of seven key marine benthic sampling platforms that were identified based on frequency of use in previous open water sampling and monitoring programs: Multibeam sonar (MBES), Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs), benthic Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUVs), towed video, grabs and box cores, sleds and trawls, and remotely operated vehicles (ROVs). Each of these platforms targets a discrete data type (bathymetry, imagery, biological and sediment samples) within particular environments (consolidated, unconsolidated substrates) (Table 2), with specific advantages (Table 3). In addition, we provide a field manual for pelagic BRUVs as a concept sampling method in pelagic ecosystems due to its similarity to benthic BRUVs. Importantly, the inclusion of these sampling platforms in the current version is not an assessment of their value but instead an indication of their frequency of use and suitability for national monitoring (e.g. established methods, dedicated users, integration with existing national programs).

One of the main challenges in assessing marine biodiversity is the lack of standardised approaches for monitoring it (Duffy et al. 2013, Teixeira et al. 2016). As such, the overarching goal of these field manuals is to reduce the bias and variance in data from differences in sampling procedures, thereby ensuring that patterns in data are due to patterns in the community rather than patterns of how or when the community was sampled. If the measured ecological variable and the variation in sampling techniques are confounded, it is challenging if not impossible to objectively determine if observed changes are due to real ecological change or sampling technique. If variability is sufficiently high, real changes that would trigger appropriate management may not be detected in time, if at all. Importantly, many state marine monitoring programs use their own standard operating protocols (SOPs) relevant for wetland, estuarine, embayment, or intertidal habitats (Table 1). The current package of field manuals is not meant to replace them, but rather to complement them for deeper waters and national monitoring purposes. At the same time, we hope that individual state marine monitoring programs will also identify opportunities to adjust current practices to increase national consistency and that the SOPs will provide an opportunity for industry and industry consultants to contribute to national monitoring through standardising their ongoing activities (Teytelman 2018). To that end, marine managers from all states and territories in Australia were engaged in the process of developing these field manuals. This ensured that methods were similar whenever possible and differences were clearly explained in relation to marine monitoring in Commonwealth waters.

Table 2: Summary of prioritised benthic sampling platforms and their acquisition targets

Data Type Data Target Spatial coverage Environment Chapter
MBES Bathymetry, backscatter Seafloor Continuous All 3
AUV Imagery Epifauna Continuous All 4
BRUV Imagery Demersal fish Point (qualitative) All 5
Towed Imagery Epifauna Transect All 7
Grab/Boxcore Biological and sediment samples Macrofauna, infauna Point Unconsolidated substrate 8
Sled/Trawl Biological and sediment samples Megafauna, epifauna Transect (qualitative) Consolidated substrate 9
ROV Imagery* Epifauna Transect All 10