Keynote address to the Ocean Business Leadership Summit

01 March 2023

Thank you all for having me here today, at the first ever Ocean Business Leaders Summit, on the home of the Gadigal People of the Eora Nation.

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land and pay my respects to their elders past and present. 

We are so lucky in this country to have the world’s oldest continuous culture and the most successful environmental custodians on earth to learn from and to draw on. 

A few weeks ago, I got to experience one of the great privileges of my position – which was travelling to the Murujuga Cultural Landscape in Western Australia.

I went there to meet with the traditional owners, and to join them in formally nominating the site for World Heritage status. 

Murujuga is located on the land of the Ngarda-Ngarli people.

It’s at the tip of the Pilbara, on the Dampier Archipelago, where the deep red earth meets the bright blue Indian Ocean. 

It’s an amazing place, a true wonder of the world, and home to one of the largest collections of rock art on earth.

There are over one million petroglyphs at Murujuga.

That’s one million pieces of art. Each carved into the hard volcanic rock. 

And each telling one piece of a 50,000 year old story – the story of Ngarda-Ngarli people.

If you ever get the chance to visit Murujuga, which I cannot recommend enough, what you find on those rocks is a proud marine culture, a proud ocean culture, full of turtles and dugongs and sharks and fish. 

What you also find at Murujuga is underwater rock art, from back in the last ice age, when the oceans were much lower than they are today.

These carvings trace the Indigenous songlines, across the land and down onto the ocean floor, in one continuous story. 

When I was there last month, we met an Elder who had worked out the location of these underwater petroglyphs, long before archaeologists ever turned up on the scene – because he knew the songlines by heart, and he could map them out in his head.

To the western eye, this knowledge of country appears nothing short of incredible. 

But it’s common among First Nations people, including the Gadigal people living here on the banks of Sydney Harbour.

And that connection to sea country and the ocean is still there, it’s still alive and strong in the modern world.  

It’s no coincidence that the finest song ever recorded about the Australian ocean was written by a Yolngu man and covered by a Torres Strait Island woman.

You might have different nominations for that title, of the great Australian ocean song, but for me it has to be My Island Home by the Warumpi Band. 

It’s those lyrics. 

‘I come from a saltwater people / we always lived by the sea’. 

We talk of Australia as wide brown land, but the truth is, more than 85 percent of us live within 50 kilometres of the ocean. 

For the most part, we are a saltwater people. 

We do live by the sea.  

And this is our island home. 

That doesn’t diminish the essential work being done in the great Australian middle, or the beauty of the desert and the bush. 

No country can survive and flourish without that sturdy backbone. 

It’s simply to acknowledge that Australians are drawn to the water, that we’re drawn to the ocean’s edge, and beyond. 

As someone who grew up near the water in southern Sydney, I could speak about this all day long, and most Australians will instinctively understand what I’m talking about.

But as much as oceans shape our self-image and our culture and our choice of recreation, there’s obviously a more complex story here too. 

Because oceans are also an absolute pillar of our economy. 

Oceans are the global super highway of international trade, taking our incredible exports to the world, and bringing back essential consumer goods. 

Australian oceans are home to some of the world’s best and most sustainable fisheries.

Fisheries that feed our people, and increasingly feed the globe. 

Australian oceans are a magnet for tourism, from the Great Barrier Reef down to the Great Australian Bight.

Our oceans attract visitors from every corner of the globe, employing hundreds of thousands of people, and keeping our coastal towns alive and prosperous. 

And while oceans have always provided a share of our energy needs, more and more they’re being used as a platform for renewable energy generation. 

Just last week, the Minister for Climate Change and Energy was in Newcastle, talking about offshore wind and the Hunter Renewable Energy Zone.  

Newcastle, the home of coal, will soon be the city of renewables, with the help of our oceans. 

This is a terrific example of the advantages that come with our commitment to regional planning, where we smooth the way for sustainable development, so everybody benefits. 

And we have another five offshore wind zones planned – in the Gippsland, in the Illawarra, in western Victorian, in Bunbury, and off the Bass Strait.   

This is what people mean when they talk about the blue economy. 

It’s a group of industries that are expanding rapidly, that are racing ahead of past projections, with the potential for more growth, and more diversified growth. 

As Minister for the Environment, I’m conscious of the economic scale we’re dealing with here. 

And I’m sensitive to how these industries are supporting communities right around Australia. 

Which is why I feel such a strong responsibility to protect our oceans, to make sure they’re clean and healthy and prosperous well into the future. 

I understand that this will be an evolving relationship, that there will always be an ongoing negotiation between industry and the environment minister. 

My job is to protect the environment, while facilitating sustainable economic development. 

Some people might want to extract more than they currently do, or extract it faster, or under weaker rules. But that isn’t always wise, in the long term.  

Because there are serious pressures facing our oceans, pressures we need to acknowledge and confront.

Oceans are soaking up a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions, and they’re capturing 90% of the heat generated by greenhouse gases. 

Global warming is causing devastating marine heatwaves, which are playing havoc with the ocean’s natural cycles. 

These heatwaves are changing the dynamic of underwater ecosystems, they’re bleaching our beautiful coral reefs, and they’re disturbing the migration patterns of fish and other sea creatures. 

In the Great Southern Reef, up to ninety percent of our kelp forests were destroyed in one of these heatwaves, with terrible consequences for the abalone and rock lobster industries. 

Oceans have also become the unfortunate endpoint of our society’s addiction to plastics pollution.

There’s one statistic on this topic which never fails to shock me:

That if we don’t change our behaviour quickly, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish by the year 2050. 

There’s nothing more unnatural or repulsive than cutting open the stomach of a dead turtle or a dead sea bird and finding a rainbow of microplastics in there – and then learning that the animal had either starved to death or choked on the plastic. 

And what’s more, this pollution can threaten food quality, threaten human health, and pose a serious problem to many of your businesses. 

Our oceans are also facing the expected challenges that come with strong growth in the blue economy. 

Of making sure that global fishing is sustainable – that we’re meeting rising demand within the limits of what we can reproduce and repopulate. 

Of making sure that shipping lanes and offshore wind zones leave as light a mark as possible on the sea, as they become more and more congested.   

Now these are all big challenges. 

And none of them have simple domestic solutions.

Oceans are by their very nature global.

Water ebbs and flows. It moves around with the tides and the waves. 

And plastic that’s dropped into a river in Thailand can end up killing a turtle off the coast of Fiji. 

Which is why one of the first things I did after being sworn in as Minister was travel to Portugal, for the United Nations Oceans Conference. 

I wanted to send a message – that Australia was once again a global leader on the environment, working in partnership with our friends in the Pacific. 

In December, we led the fight at Montreal COP-15 for a global commitment to protect thirty percent of our oceans by 2030. 

A fight we won. 

Australia is actively pushing for an ambitious global high seas treaty, which is being discussed in New York as we speak.

This treaty would, for the first time, regulate the conservation and sustainable use of international waters – which make up 60% of the world’s oceans. 

And we are also negotiating a new global agreement on plastics pollution, as part of our dream for a plastics free Pacific in our lifetime. 

This is what we’re campaigning for on the world stage. 

And Australians can be proud of the role we are playing. 

But there are also things we can do at home, that are in our national power. 

Last week, I announced our government’s intention to expand protection of the Macquarie Island Marine Park.

Macquarie Island is one of the most spectacular places on earth. 

It’s the only place where royal penguins breed. 

It’s a refuge for endangered seabirds like the wandering albatross.  

It’s an outpost of true wilderness, one of the last in the world, and it’s Australia’s territory to protect. 

I know there was some commentary on this announcement in the media, so I want to be absolutely clear in what we are proposing here. 

Ahead of the last federal election, Labor made a commitment to review Australia’s marine parks in line with statutory timelines.  

That includes the Macquarie Island Marine Park – where the management plan expires in June this year. 

We promised that any change to that system would follow science and stakeholder consultation.  

And our announcement last week came after a series of conversations between me, my office, my department and the two fishing companies that currently operate around Macquarie Island. 

These are sincere conversations, but consultation doesn’t always mean we will end up agreeing with each other. 

And the announcement will itself begin a formal consultation period, which will be open for everyone to comment – and I encourage people to do that. 

There’s a small, well defined, environmentally sustainable fishing industry in the ocean around Macquarie Island, which sources Patagonian toothfish in a way that minimises bycatch. 

It’s world’s best practice, and under this proposal, the two existing fisheries will continue to fish exactly as they have been. 

It’s a sensible, balanced, environmentally sound model. 

And it’s a model that’s supported by science – by experts like Dr Ian Cresswell from the CSIRO, who know that the island is home to a rare collection of endangered animals, and it needs our highest protection. 

That’s what we’re doing here. 

We are looking to protect an exceptional place, for the sake of our kids and our grandkids.

And for the sake of the ongoing sustainable use of our oceans.  

That’s what motivates me as Australia’s Environment Minister. 

To protect more of what’s precious, to repair more of what’s damaged, and to manage nature better for the future. 

It’s what we’re doing in other special places, like Great Barrier Reef, with our $1.2 billion investment in the budget:

To improve water quality. 

To clean up marine plastics. 

To control invasive species like the Crown of Thorns Starfish. 

To promote Traditional Owners in the role as reef managers. 

And to provide extra support for our marine scientists – some of the very best in the world at what they do.

More than 60,000 jobs rely on a healthy Great Barrier Reef, and we are fighting for every single one of them. 

I can’t emphasise that point enough today: 

Healthy oceans are necessary for healthy ocean businesses – and for the people who depend on them for work. 

I just mentioned our marine scientists on the Reef, and I wasn’t just being patriotic when I said that we’re conducting some of the best marine research on the planet here in Australia. 

And it’s research that we are actively sharing with our neighbours in the Pacific, to help them build up their own domestic science capacity. 

This incredible work is happening in our universities, it’s happening in private companies, and increasingly it’s happening in philanthropic organisations too. 

Dr Andrew Forrest is speaking after me later today, who holds a PhD in marine science himself, and his Minderoo Foundation is doing brilliant work to help us better understand our oceans.

They’re working at the frontier, at the deepest depths, in places human eyes have rarely seen. 

Last year, researchers from Minderoo discovered the deepest ever fish found off the Australian mainland, six kilometres beneath the waterline.  

Which makes me even more thrilled to be able to announce today that Minderoo and the federal government, through Parks Australia, have finalised a partnership agreement to work together on sustainable ocean management. 

This partnership will focus on cutting edge environmental DNA work, which could help us monitor ocean life far quicker than traditional methods of data collection. 

It means we could dip a bucket into the water – and by the power of science detect if an endangered species has been in the area recently. 

It’s an incredibly exciting field of research, and I want to see more philanthropic groups and governments working together like this, to maximise both of our strengths. 

This is also one of the motivations behind our new nature repair market. 

The nature repair market will make it easier for landholders, for Traditional Owners and for businesses to come together and invest in protecting our natural heritage.

And it will reward people for their work restoring our land and sea country. 

The market will apply to the land, but it will also apply to marine projects in our territorial waters, up to twelve nautical miles out to sea.

That will help us restore our mangroves, our oyster reefs, our saltmarshes and our seagrass meadows. 

These blue carbon ecosystems are great for the climate, because they absorb carbon emissions at five times the rate of tropical rainforests. 

They also provide precious breeding and feeding grounds for marine animals, they clean our waters, and they protect our coastline from storm surges and erosion. 

Friends, we all have a role to play here, in protecting and promoting our ocean economy.  

As the national government, at the top of the federation, we accept a leading role in this mission. 

But there's something missing here: we still have no overarching framework for how we manage and interact with our oceans.

No framework to ensure we support their health and make sure our kids and grandkids can rely on them in the same way we do.  

Which is why I’m also pleased to announce today that we will be leading the development of a national Sustainable Ocean Plan – a roadmap to help us determine the kind of future we want for our oceans. 

A roadmap that works with existing industries and accounts for new ones as well – like:

  • Offshore renewables
  • Emerging fisheries
  • The space sector
  • An expanded defence footprint
  • And crops like asparagopsis, which is used as food for cattle. 

This is a commitment Australia signed up to as part of our membership of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy – and it is one we will deliver on.

It will identify key areas for reform and set out a concrete plan for how we conserve and manage our oceans now and into the future, so that we can continue to make the most of our blue economy. 

We’ll be doing this in close collaboration with the people and businesses who have a close stake in the ocean, which includes everyone here today, as well as the State and Territory governments. 

Later this year, we will be hosting a National Ocean Summit, to help shape and formulate the Sustainable Ocean Plan. 

That means industry and scientists and conservationists and traditional owners – all together, all in the same room, all contributing to the same conversation. 

Because the ocean doesn’t respect lines on a map. 

We can’t succeed in truly protecting it unless we work across national borders and across the many uses of our ocean. 

The next two days are an important step in this mission. 

I look forward to reading this conference’s White Paper, which I’m sure will help inform the development of our Sustainable Ocean Plan. 

So thank you all for having me here today. 

And thank you for the work you are doing to support our oceans. 

I’m looking to seeing you again soon, and to working with you all in the years to come, for the sake of our shared island home.

Thank you.