Beach with umbrella graphic

Recreational water quality


of monitored swimming sites scored very good or good for recreational water quality in 2016–17

Graphic of three fish in water

Marine species


marine species are listed as threatened under NSW legislation

Saltmarsh graphic

Saltmarsh in estuaries

Red Down


of estuaries have shown a decrease in areas of saltmash since 1985

Graphic of coast with water, sailing boat and birds

Coastal living


of the NSW population lives within 50 kilometres of the coast

Water quality and ecosystem health in the marine environment is generally good. Most coastal environments are in good condition, while the condition of NSW estuaries tends to be more variable and not as good.

At 84% of NSW beaches, recreational water quality, based on levels of pollution from stormwater runoff and sewage contamination, is rated as very good or good. The rating for coastal lakes and estuaries is 66%. The condition of individual estuaries and coastal lakes is highly variable and depends on their level of resilience to change and the level of disturbance of their catchment.

Forty-five marine species or populations are currently listed as threatened under NSW legislation including 21 marine seabird species and seven marine mammal species.

The greatest threats to the coastal and marine environment come from land use intensification, resource-use activities and climate change. Most coastal and estuarine areas have been modified to some extent, increasing pressure on the species that depend on them. Coastal development and land use continue to impact the viability of fauna populations, including threatened species. Only about one in five estuaries and coastal lakes retain more than 90% of natural, uncleared vegetation within their catchments, mostly along the south coast.

Related topics: Protected Areas and Conservation | Invasive Species

NSW indicators

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Indicator and status Environmental
Percentage of ocean and estuarine beaches with beach suitability grades for swimming of good or better
Stable  ✔✔✔ 
Chlorophyll a levels in estuaries
Stable  ✔✔✔ 
Turbidity levels in estuaries
Stable  ✔✔✔ 
Distribution of estuarine macrophytes
Variable  ✔
Levels of estuarine catchment disturbance
Getting worse  ✔✔


Terms and symbols used above are defined in How to use this report.


The NSW coastline is about 2,100 kilometres long and the state's marine jurisdiction extends 5.6 kilometres (three nautical miles) out to sea.

The coastal, estuarine and marine waters of NSW contain high levels of biodiversity. This is because of their wide range of oceanic, shoreline and estuarine habitats, and both subtropical and temperate currents.

Common estuary types in NSW are:

  • the mouths and tidal reaches of drowned river valleys
  • rivers with sand bars at their entrances (wave dominated rivers)
  • intermittently closed and open lakes, lagoons and creeks
  • large coastal lakes.

The broad characteristics of the NSW coast are:

  • the north coast has broad coastal floodplains that have been extensively cleared and settled
  • the Sydney Basin is highly urbanised with drowned river valleys cutting through sandstone plateaus
  • the south coast is mostly less developed and has many coastal lakes and lagoons with relatively small catchments.

These varied environments and the habitats they support provide many important ecosystem services, such as:

  • mitigating coastal and seabed erosion
  • maintaining coastal water quality
  • acting as critical habitats for fish and other marine life
  • maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems
  • providing recreation, visual amenity and food production.

The desirability of coastal lifestyles and increasing settlement along the coast are placing estuaries and coastal lakes under higher levels of stress. The waters and ecosystems near urban, industrial and agricultural areas are particularly exposed to the effects of pollution from urban and agricultural runoff, stormwater and sewage discharge. The main threats to coastal, estuarine and marine waters are:

  • land-use intensification, point discharges and hydrologic modification
  • resource use activities including shipping, fishing, aquaculture, recreation and tourism, dredging, mining, flow modification and infrastructure
  • climate change resulting in altered ocean currents and nutrients, air and sea temperature rise, ocean acidification, altered storm and cyclone activity, sea level rise and flooding and storm inundation (MEMA 2017).

Over the last decade, systematic data has been collected on the condition and long-term health of the coastal, estuarine and marine areas of NSW, and the important ecosystems they support. This data includes information on estuarine ecosystem health including:

  • algal abundance
  • water clarity
  • seagrass depth
  • oxygen levels.

There are significant knowledge gaps about threatened species and fish species abundance and variety.


More than 85% of the NSW population lives within 50 kilometres of the coast and most coastal catchments in the marine estate have some level of land-use activity or development (MEMA 2017). Only 12 of the 184 main catchments in NSW remain undeveloped, and these are mostly in the south towards the NSW and Victorian border (MEMA 2017).

The most developed catchments, where over 80% of land is developed, are predominantly urbanised. Typically, urban areas are adjacent to main waterways; while agricultural areas, forestry and mining operations are in the upper parts of the catchment.

The top four threats to coastal and marine environments are associated with land-use intensification (BMT WBM 2017) and are:

  • urban stormwater discharge
  • modifications at the entrance of estuaries to enable access
  • agricultural runoff in estuaries
  • clearing riparian and adjacent habitat, including draining wetlands.

The extent of land use activity in all coastal catchments has been summarised by a catchment disturbance index, which ranges from very low disturbance (5) to very high (1). The index was der­­ived for the NSW Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting Strategy 2010–2015 (DECC 2010, Roper et al 2011), and contains pre- and post-European pollution levels modelled using the NSW Government’s Coastal Eutrophication Risk Assessment Tool.

The sensitivity of estuaries to impacts resulting from land use intensification varies due to the type of estuary, likelihood of intensification and pollutant removal efficiency (Roper et al 2011). There are 93 estuaries identified as sensitive to impacts from land use (OEH 2017) including:

  • 25 in the northern region
  • 21 in the central region
  • 47 in the southern region.

Table 20.1 (MEMA 2017) shows that the population has increased faster on the north and south coasts – 36–40% of catchments have population increases of over 20% – while there is an increase of only 10% in central NSW.

  • In the north region 44–45% of estuaries are situated in areas with the highest population density and nutrient export from runoff and overflows. This region has the greatest hydrological modification of estuary function.
  • The central region has the greatest levels of urbanisation, so 85% of estuary catchments with the highest population densities, and high levels of nutrients and sediment are exported to 70% of estuaries.
  • The south region has just 17–18% of estuary catchments in areas of high population density and nutrient categories.

Table 20.1: Proportion of NSW estuary catchments in the two highest disturbance ranks (statewide) for population density, nutrient increase and commercial fish catch

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Factor Number of estuaries with a high disturbancea Number of estuaries Percentb


Population density 24 55 44%
Nutrient increase 25 55 45%
Commercial catch 5 55 9%
Population increase (>20%) 20 55 36%
Population density 34 40 85%
Nutrient increase 28 40 70%
Commercial catch 1 40 3%
Training walls 7 40 18%
Population increase (>20%) 4 40 10%
Population density 16 89 18%
Nutrient increase 15 89 17%
Commercial catch 3 89 3%
Training walls 9 89 10%
Population increase (>20%) 36 89 40%


a Estuaries with a disturbance rank of 1 or 2.

b Percentage of estuaries with training walls (modifications) and proportion of estuaries with a more than 20% increase in population between 1996 and 2006 in the northern, central and southern regions.



Source: MEMA 2017, all data from Roper et al (2011)

The most significant priority threats for water pollution on environmental values are urban stormwater discharge, agricultural diffuse source runoff and solid waste, marine debris and microplastics.

Discharge of nutrients, sediments, metals, toxins, and other chemicals and pollutants into coastal waters also occurs from the many small catchments that front the coast. This often involves untreated urban stormwater and agricultural runoff. Some catchments will also have licensed discharges from industries such as those dealing with minerals production and refining; and sewage treatment plants.

Figure 20.2 shows licensed discharge loads of total nitrogen, phosphorus and suspended solids to open marine waters and estuaries.

Loads discharged to estuarine environments have been generally decreasing over this period. Discharges of suspended solids tend to reflect wet and dry periods, such as El Niño cycles, and are relatively stable, although these discharges have increased in open coastal waters in 2016-17, but have generally remained stable.

Figure 20.2: Licensed discharges to NSW open marine waters and estuaries, 2000–01 to 2016–17

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This chart is interactive - click on legend or hover over chart

0237 SOE Graphic Assets web-V3-MS


Data covers all licensees discharging into the marine environment under the Load-based Licensing Scheme.


EPA data 2018

Urban stormwater and agricultural runoff are recognised as significant contributors of nutrients to marine waters. Refer to the status and trends section of this topic for detail on nutrients and water quality. Additional sources of coastal and marine pollutants include:

  • garbage washed or blown from land
  • discarded commercial and recreational fishing gear
  • material from shipping operations and incidents, such as ballast water discharges and sewage released from vessels, and oil or chemical spills.

No major shipping-related pollution incidents have been recorded in NSW marine waters over the last three years. However, in Commonwealth Waters in June 2018 cargo loss from the Liberian-flagged ship, YM Efficiency, approximately 30 kilometres off the coast of Port Stephens resulted in debris in NSW waters and on the Mid North Coast and Nelson Bay peninsula.

Entanglement and ingestion of debris can be fatal to marine species, particularly threatened species such as seabirds, turtles and whales. The NSW Government’s Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 lists ‘entanglement in or ingestion of anthropogenic debris in marine and estuarine environments’ as a key threatening process. Recovery in the populations of threatened species, such as humpback whales, is likely to result in more accidental entanglements.

As much debris is plastic, which both floats and is slow to degrade, the impacts are multiple and long-lasting. See the Waste topic in this report for more details.

‘Human induced climate change’ is listed as a key threatening process under the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and 'anthropogenic climate change’ under the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016. Key components of climate change that are considered to have potential impacts on the NSW marine environment (MEMA 2017) are:

  • altered storm and cyclone activity, flooding, storm surge and inundation
  • altered ocean currents and nutrients
  • climate and sea temperature rise
  • sea-level rise
  • ocean acidification.

Sea level rise, major storms and floods are having adverse impacts on coastal geomorphological processes including the cyclic accretion of sand onto beaches. The loss of sand from beaches and other changes to the NSW coast due to sea level rise, storm surges and inundation will continue to impact on coastal amenity.

Predictive studies show that the change in the movement of the East Australian Current could greatly affect future species distributions in NSW estuaries (Cetina Heredia et al 2015), though this is an area that requires further research.

Climate change can result in increased water temperatures, often known as ‘marine heat waves’ with extreme consequences for survival of marine and estuarine animals, and changes in ranges for many species. Changes in tidal levels from estuary entrance modifications or sea level rise has major consequences for critical marine habitats such as beaches, mudflats, seagrasses, mangroves and saltmarsh, with flow-on consequences for all the organisms that rely on them (MEMA 2017).

The long-term impacts of climate change will magnify effects on the NSW marine environment. Significant effects are expected to occur across south-east Australia (Hobday et al 2006, Wernberg et al 2011, Verges et al 2016), including changes to:

  • marine species distribution and abundance
  • variations and timing of life cycle events
  • physiology, morphology and behaviour (e.g. rates of metabolism, reproduction, development)
  • biological communities via species interactions.

Further specific studies have identified that increases in temperature are likely to result in:

  • spread, establishment and virulence of pathogens and exotic species (Wernberg et al 2011, Campbell et al 2011, Harvell et al 2002)
  • changes in range and distribution of harvested species (Pecl et al 2011)
  • composition and interactions in aquatic communities and the structure and dynamics of communities (Verges et al 2016)
  • disease in seaweeds and invertebrates (Campbell et al 2011, Sweet et al 2016)
  • poleward contraction of marine organisms and habitats (Smale & Wernberg 2013, Fowler et al 2017)
  • a reduction in kelp habitat and associated change in community composition and ecosystem function, particularly in northern NSW.

Ocean acidification may emerge as an important pressure in future decades with evidence of impacts on calcifying immobile animals (Parker et al 2013, Ross et al 2011, Havenhand et al 2008). A particularly vulnerable group is marine molluscs (e.g. oysters, abalone and whelks) in their reproductive stages (Parker et al 2010, Scanes et al 2014). Acidification already interacts with temperature to reduce fertilisation success in Sydney rock oysters, resulting in their smaller size, longer time to develop and increased abnormality of larval stages (Parker et al 2010) and with other stressors to limit survival (Scanes et al 2017). 

See the Climate Change topic in this report for more details.

Marine invasive species are plants or animals, often introduced from overseas, that can take over habitats and directly compete with native species for food. Some marine pests are native to other regions of Australia but have been transported into NSW through shipping or the aquarium trade.

The main invasive marine species in NSW are:

Other marine pests found in NSW include:

  • Tridentiger trigonocephalus (Japanese goby)
  • Maoricolpus roseus (New Zealand screw shell).

The introduction of non-indigenous fish and marine vegetation to the coastal waters of NSW is listed as a key threatening process under the Fisheries Management Act 1994.

There is no statewide monitoring program for invasive species in NSW, although much research and monitoring was undertaken after the green alga Caulerpa taxifolia was introduced in 2000 and ad hoc surveys have been done for different species in particular locations.

Caulerpa taxifolia was particularly abundant in Burrill Lake and Lake Conjola but has not been seen in either lake since 2013. Wallagoot Lake was officially declared free of Caulerpa in 2013 when surveys failed to detect the presence of the marine pest following significant control efforts. Over recent years, Caulerpa has been reported in 14 estuaries or lakes from Lake Macquarie to Wallagoot Lake in the south. Caulerpa taxifolia in Lake Macquarie continues to persist, with a new highly populated creek area confirmed during 2018.

There are historical reports of Carcinus maenas from estuaries as far north as Port Jackson, but there have been no recent sightings of Carcinus in any estuaries north of Narawallee Inlet. Surveys since 2011 have documented the presence of Carcinus in 27 estuaries south of Narawallee Inlet to the Victorian border (DPI 2017a).

Sabella spallanzanii was known only in Twofold Bay until April 2013 when it was discovered in Botany Bay (Murray & Keable 2013).

Marine resource use, including shipping, recreation and tourism, dredging, modified and freshwater flows, are identified as sources of threats (BMT WBM 2017).

Fishing has potential impacts on the natural food chain. Commercial and recreational fishing is undertaken in the coastal, estuarine and marine waters of NSW. Three commercial fisheries operate in NSW estuarine waters:

  • estuary general fishery
  • estuary prawn trawl fishery.

Commercial fishing is permitted in only 86 of the 184 estuaries along the NSW coast, with recreational fishing only permitted in many estuaries. Of those commercially fished, 18 estuaries account for over 95% of the total estuarine commercial catch, which was around 4,500 tonnes in 2013–14.

The following fisheries operate in coastal and marine waters:

  • ocean trap and line
  • ocean trawl
  • ocean hauling
  • rock lobster
  • sea urchin
  • turban shell and
  • abalone
  • southern fish trawl.

In 2013–14 commercial catch in NSW coastal and marine waters was around 8,585 tonnes (excluding Southern Trawl Fishery). There were more catches for some species in Commonwealth waters.

Recreational fishing occurs throughout estuarine, coastal and marine waters of NSW. Most recreational fishers use line fishing to catch different species. The composition of the recreational catch varies along the coast, mostly reflecting differences in the distribution of the key harvested species, with many of the same species also harvested in the commercial fisheries.

Commercial and recreational fishing place pressures on fish numbers as well as the broader environment by:

  • reducing the abundance of species and interfering with the natural food chain
  • causing incidental by-catch, including species of conservation concern
  • disturbing wildlife and the marine environment.

Impacts on fish populations vary considerably and are strongly influenced by:

  • the number, type and population status of harvested species
  • levels of fishing
  • type of specific management arrangements.

Several threatened and protected species managed under the Fisheries Management Act 1994, particularly grey nurse shark, white shark and black cod, are threatened by:

  • illegal fishing
  • injury due to accidental capture by fishers
  • entrapment in shark mesh nets.

Hook and line fishing in areas important for the survival of threatened fish species is listed as a key threatening process under the Fisheries Management Act 1994. The shark meshing program in NSW is also listed as a key threatening process under the Fisheries Management Act 1994 and the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016.


Marine estate management framework

The Marine Estate Management Act 2014 (MEM Act) provides for the strategic and integrated management of the marine estate in NSW. The MEM Act mandates an environmental, social and economic threat and risk assessment (TARA) to be undertaken for the entire NSW marine estate, including coastal waters, lakes and lagoons, estuaries and coastal wetlands.

The TARA (BMT WBM 2017) assesses the pressures on the environmental assets and the social, cultural and economic benefits derived from the NSW Marine Estate (all estuarine, coastal and marine waters up to the tidal limits). It considers how activities create pressures (defined as stressors) on natural assets, and the threat this poses to benefits. The TARA has informed the development of nine new management initiatives in the Marine Estate Management Strategy 20182028 and will inform new marine park management plans and related coastal management programs.

Coastal management framework

The NSW Coastal Management Act 2016 (CM Act) establishes the new framework and objectives for coastal management in NSW. The framework comprises the:

  • Coastal Management Act 2016
  • State Environmental Planning Policy (Coastal Management) 2018 (CM SEPP)
  • NSW Coastal Management Manual
  • Coastal Management Programs (see following section)
  • NSW Coastal Council
  • Coastal and Estuary Grants Program.

The CM Act defines the coastal zone which is made up of four coastal management areas. The CM SEPP includes maps of the coastal zone and coastal management areas according to the definitions in the CM Act and establishes development controls to be applied in each area to achieve the objectives of the CM Act. Coastal management in NSW supports the objects of the Marine Estate Management Act 2014.

Environment protection legislation

The Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 sets the framework for land use planning decisions. It is complemented by state environmental planning policies (SEPPs) that deal with planning issues for the coastal zone, including matters arising under the CM SEPP, SEPP No. 50 – Canal Estate Development and SEPP No. 62 – Sustainable Aquaculture.

The Protection of the Environment Operations Act 1997 regulates point source discharges into coastal, estuarine and marine environments.

Fisheries management legislation

The Fisheries Management Act 1994 and supporting regulations aim to conserve, develop and share fishery resources for the benefit of present and future generations by:

  • conserving fish stocks and key fish habitats
  • protecting threatened species, populations and ecological communities of fish and marine vegetation
  • promoting ecologically sustainable development.

Coastal management programs

Coastal Management Programs (CMPs) set the long-term strategy for coordinated management of the coast, with a focus on achieving the objects of the CM Act. They are prepared by local councils in consultation with their communities and relevant public authorities. The coastal management manual provides mandatory requirements and guidance for CMPs by local councils. CMPs are key mechanisms in the implementation of actions identified in the Marine Estate Management Strategy.

The Marine Estate Management Strategy

The Marine Estate Management Strategy 2018–2028 proposes nine initiatives to address the priority and cumulative threats to the environmental assets and community benefits derived from the NSW marine estate. The strategy provides an overarching framework to manage the marine estate as a single continuous system over the next 10 years. The initial stage will focus on dealing with threats posed by water pollution and marine litter, with complementary activities to:

  • deliver healthy coastal habitats and sustainable land use
  • protect Aboriginal cultural values
  • reduce threats to marine wildlife
  • deliver safe and sustainable fisheries and recreational boating
  • enhance social, cultural and economic benefits.

The Strategy’s marine litter initiative is being assisted by current NSW litter programs, including a container deposit scheme – see the Waste and Recycling topic.

The Risk-based Framework

The Risk-based Framework for Considering Waterway Health Outcomes in Strategic Land-use Planning Decisions  (Dela-Cruz et al 2017) is a protocol to help decision-makers manage the impact of land-use activities on the health of waterways in NSW. It enables decision-makers to determine management responses, which meet waterway health outcomes that reflect the community’s environmental values and uses of waterways.

Marine Water Quality Objectives

The Marine Water Quality Objectives for NSW Ocean Waters (DEC 2005) describe the water quality needed to protect the community's values for, and uses of, the marine environment and are used in coastal planning and management planning strategies covering land use and catchment management.


The NSW Government AdaptNSW program is developing information and tools to help government, businesses and communities build resilience in the face of future extreme events and hazards. The Coastal Processes and Responses node researches risk to and management of the impacts of climate change on coastal and estuary zones.

Regional plans 

Regional plans are being developed to plan for future population needs for housing, jobs, infrastructure and a healthy environment. These plans set a strategic direction for rapidly growing coastal regions.

Commercial Fisheries Business Adjustment Program

The Commercial Fisheries Business Adjustment Program has provided enhanced management structures to promote sustainability and viability throughout NSW commercial fisheries. The program has provided significant reforms including introduction of additional direct catch and effort quota management structures and measures to rationalise potential fishing effort. The new management arrangements will result in increased certainty for the management of key commercial species and allow effective and efficient controls for the management of commercial harvest. Implementation of the new arrangements commenced in 2017 and will conclude in 2019. 

Harvest Strategies

Harvest strategies provide best practice frameworks for assessment and management of fisheries resources. The NSW Government is in the process of developing a policy framework and harvest strategies that will provide improved assessment, monitoring, and management objectives with an initial focus on commercial harvest.

Sustainable Aquaculture Strategies

Sustainable aquaculture strategies have been developed to guide sustainable seafood production to support future demands of food security for the state. 

The NSW Land Based and Oyster Industry Sustainable Aquaculture Strategy outlines industry best practice, a streamlined approvals process, secure oyster leases for future generations and highlight protection of water quality. It is complemented by the Healthy Estuaries for Healthy Oysters - Guidelines, prepared to meet the requirements of the NSW Diffuse Source Water Pollution Strategy. The Guidelines aim to not only protect environmental conditions required for healthy oyster production, but also to improve estuarine water quality to benefit recreational users, tourism, and recreational and commercial fisheries. 

A NSW Marine Waters Sustainable Waters Aquaculture Strategy has been drafted to set the overarching strategy for the NSW Government to co-ordinate development of the marine aquaculture industry. It provides regulatory and industry best practice framework for development of the NSW marine waters aquaculture industry in an ecologically sustainable and socially responsible manner.

Fisheries Compliance

NSW DPI Fisheries Compliance works to reduce the risks to fish stocks and aquatic habitats in NSW. Fisheries officers operate from 28 strategically placed locations along the coast and inland to ensure compliance in all recreational fishing, commercial fishing, aquaculture, and marine protected areas programs in NSW (including marine reserves and marine parks).

Using a risk-based approach the group strives to optimise compliance with fisheries and marine estate management rules by maximising voluntary compliance and creating effective deterrence against illegal activity.

Each year fisheries officers detect around 6,000 offences and seize more than 40,000 illegally obtained fish and 3,000 items of illegal fishing gear.

Non-government initiatives

Teaching and research facilities contribute data and information to Government initiatives. The Sydney Institute of Marine Science (SIMS) is a partnership between the four main universities in the Sydney region and several research institutes including the Australian Museum. SIMS has over 100 scientists and graduate students associates with the Institute and represents a broad array of projects. It provides information directly to policy makers and managers in NSW. Flagship projects run through SIMS include the World Harbour Project, the NSW node of the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), and the Sydney Harbour Research Program.

Australian Government activities

The National Water Quality Management Strategy (NWQMS) is a joint national approach to improving water quality in Australian and New Zealand waterways. The NWQMS involves development and implementation of management plans for estuaries, coastal waters and other water bodies by the community and government. These plans focus on the reduction of pollution released into coastal pollution hotspots and other aquatic ecosystems around the country. The Great Lakes (Wallis, Smiths and Myall Lakes), Botany Bay, and the Hunter River estuary and its catchment have been identified as hotspots in NSW.

Local government, community organisations and other agencies carry out these plans using the NWQMS to protect agreed environmental values.

The NSW Government will need to continue to develop and implement suitable management and adaptation strategies to prevent a decline in the quality of coastal, estuarine and marine environments. The poor condition of water quality in some highly urbanised estuaries suggests that stormwater runoff and new urban development can be managed better to maintain the health of estuaries and coastal lakes and the desirability of coastal lifestyles.

Vulnerability to inundation and coastal erosion should be a significant consideration in the location and planning of future developments for an expanding population.

Areas of further improvement could include:

  • collaboration between the community, local, state and national governments and research institutions to make the most efficient use of available marine resources
  • strengthening comprehensive ecosystem health monitoring programs to provide sound scientific input to decision making
  • further developing and expanding risk assessment methods to help protect and rehabilitate the environment in the most resource efficient manner
  • consistently applying the risk-based framework across NSW as a best-practice protocol for managing the impacts of land-use change activities on waterway health.
  • clarifying agency roles and responsibilities for diffuse source water pollution in NSW.


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