Coastal Systems

coastal slider
For many people, the Wet Tropics evokes images of lush green rainforest meeting the turquoise blue Coral Sea.

The combination of rainforest, beach and reef attracts local and international tourists, while many people have chosen to make their home here. 

Our coast is treasured but highly contested

The term coastal zone can be applied to an area where interaction between the sea and land processes occur. We have used the term coastal system to refer to the wide range of interactions that happen within that zone and that also influence how it functions.

These natural interactions include tides and storms, as well as human interactions such as infrastructure, agriculture, modified drainage and urbanisation.

As a land girt-by-sea and in a region looking out to the world’s largest coral reef, we are nearly all connected to the coast in some way. But people think about coastal systems in many different ways:

  • The area that connects land and sea; what happens high in the mountains affects the outer most reef.
  • A narrow strip of land and sand used for farming, work and play.
  • The estuaries, mangroves, seagrass beds and coral reefs of the underwater world, which are important for fish breeding.
  • The floodplain areas that, if drained effectively, will enable urban expansion in our narrow strip of land between the mountains and the sea.
  • An area which is heavily impacted by nature’s forces including waves and wind erosion, intense storms and cyclone damage.
  • Our primary tourism magnet, which is beaches, palm trees, blue water and salty coastal breezes.
  • A place of great vulnerability, in particular with the projected changes in climate.

Coastal systems encompass all of these things, making the coastal zone the most heavily contested within our region. Conflicting values, expectations and agendas make coastal planning and management a very complex job.

Most people do agree on one thing - we all value a healthy coastal system which includes economic, recreational, residential, aesthetic, cultural and ecological benefits.

Forces of change

The ecological processes of our coastal wetlands and floodplains are critical for the health of inshore biodiversity and the Great Barrier Reef.

This natural system has always been heavily impacted by environmental forces. Our coast is constantly adapting to natural dynamic processes such as tides, waves, floods, storms and cyclones. In their natural state, coastal systems are resilient and are continually bouncing back.

However, over the last 150 years the high demand for coastal land and increasingly intense catchment development has degraded our coastal landscape. Intensive agriculture, as well as grazing and urban development has physically modified floodplains and wetland ecosystems.

Landscape modification has meant that natural corridors and essential connections for plants and animals have been lost or compromised. Since European settlement, wetlands have decreased significantly due to drainage modifications and introduced aquatic weeds, which have caused major problems.

With the massive expansion of agricultural production, there have also been elevated levels of sediment, nutrients, pesticides and other pollutants in our water which threatens our corals and seagrass beds. Urban areas, ports and shipping may be localised in scale, but can have highly significant impacts in local areas.

Increasing population and potential food security challenges are likely to drive further urban, agricultural, industrial and infrastructure development and the coastal zone will remain a magnet. More than ever we need effective, forward-projecting and evidence-based planning for our coastal areas.

Our coastal future?

A number of actions in recent years have made a positive difference. Laws limiting land clearing and wetland destruction, the coordinated efforts of natural resource bodies and community groups, as well as the massive investment in the Reef Water Quality Protection Plan, all make a difference.

Overall, we still need to increase our understanding and knowledge of the complexity of coastal ecosystems and aquatic connectivity, through ongoing research and development.

A shared view on the need to protect the critical functions that a healthy coastal system plays is essential to ensuring future generations can enjoy the incredible beauty and life-giving services that our coastal system bestows.

“For coastal Traditional Owner groups the sea is part of a defined, inherited country for which they have inalienable rights and responsibilities, including the right to access, use and distribute resources. They also have responsibility to manage those resources through time, from generation to generation.” NRM Plan 2004.

For more information

References:

  • NCCARF CoastAdapt Coastal Climate Risk Management Tool https://www.nccarf.edu.au/content/coastal-tool-overview
  • Sustaining the Wet Tropics: NRM Plan 2004
  • GBRMPA Informing the Outlook for GBR Coastal Ecosytems 2009 http://hdl.handle.net/11017/822
  • DERM Queensland Coastal Processes and Climate Change 2011
  • DEHP Queensland Coastal Plan 2012
  • DSDIP GBR Coastal Zone Strategic Assessment 2013
  • DEHP Coastal Management Plan 2013
  • Reef 2050 Long Term Sustainability Plan