Spencer Gulf socio-ecological assessment

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Project Partners:

The University of Adelaide, Flinders University, and SARDI

Research Theme:



Project Overview

This project delivered the first comprehensive assessment of the socio-economic status of the ecosystems, industries and communities of Spencer Gulf, which is South Australia’s most valuable marine ecosystem. The ecological, economic and social indicators established provides a basis for evaluating the benefits and impacts of current and future activities within and around the gulf. The approaches developed in the project are transferable to other ecosystems. Maps developed during the project allow stakeholders, including potential investors, to efficiently obtain essential information on the environmental characteristics, existing uses and social values of sites throughout the gulf. These tools will help to streamline the preparation of applications for new developments. The project identified opportunities to enhance future socio-economic assessments of the gulf and further integrate the management of South Australia’s marine ecosystems. 

Progress Update and Key Findings

Undertaking an integrated assessment of the ecosystems, industries and communities of Spencer Gulf is new science. The Australian Commonwealth and South Australian State Governments aspire to ecosystem-based management of marine systems, but this approach has not been operationalised in any jurisdiction. This project addressed this policy driver by developing ecological, economic and social indicators for Spencer Gulf that characterise the key features of the system and provide a framework against which future assessment of the ecosystem and its industries and communities can be undertaken. A range of indices were developed including for measuring inter-annual variations in the connectivity of the gulf with shelf waters to determine flushing capacity, and for measuring the effects of climate change. Socio-ecological data was used to integrate human dimensions into indices. Furthermore, a trophodynamic model that has previously been developed for the gulf was used to establish indicators of ecosystem health. Historical data-sets and model simulations were used as a basis for developing target and trigger reference points for each indicator which can be used to guide future decisions regarding management of activities within the gulf. Key knowledge gaps impeding assessment and management of the gulf’s socio-ecological systems were also identified. 

The most exciting new science in this project comes from the integration of information from a wide range of disciplines to inform assessment and management of the system. The project distilled the complex scientific information from multiple agencies into a clear concise format that can be used by policy makers. Technical information (metadata, methods etc) underpinning the science was made available in a new software tool called “Gulfview“, and documented in a technical report. Without integrating this knowledge, we cannot understand how to maximize benefits to the South Australian community from the utilization of Spencer Gulf. While this project will not develop the decision support tools needed to quantitatively assess the tradeoffs and cumulative effects of future developments, it has provided the framework against which the assessments can be undertaken, and is the essential first step towards the development of these tools.

Project Impacts

The outcomes of this project will assist the South Australian Government to achieve a number of economic priorities, including “unlocking the full potential of South Australia’s resources, energy and renewable assets” and “premium food and wine produced in our clean environment and exported to the world”.

Specific outputs included:

  • a suite of time-series ecological, social and economic indicators that will provide a framework against which future integrated assessments of Spencer Gulf can be undertaken and the sustainability of new developments can be assessed;
  • maps supported by data providing baseline information that will allow stakeholders to efficiently obtain spatially-explicit information on the environmental characteristics, ecological assets, human activities, management arrangements and socio-economic values of the gulf;
  • an integrated assessment of the gulf’s socio-ecological systems that identifies opportunities to enhance current processes for environmental assessment and applications for development approvals.

The new set of social, economic and ecological indicators that this project have developed from data currently held by a wide range of government agencies, research bodies and other stakeholders and now provide a baseline and framework for assessing and managing the impacts, interactions and cumulative effects of current and future developments in Spencer Gulf. This will also allow existing monitoring efforts undertaken by a range of stakeholders to be better integrated, allowing duplication to be eliminated, and future monitoring efforts to be directed to where they can be of most benefit. Perhaps most importantly, it will provide a basis for understanding and evaluating the likely impacts of new developments (e.g. a desalination plant) on other stakeholders and the ecosystem. The approach developed in this study will also provide a blueprint for undertaking future assessments of other marine ecosystems off South Australia, such as Gulf St Vincent, the Great Australian Bight and the Bonney Coast.  

Research Outputs

Potential social, economic and ecological indicators for integrated ecosystem assessment of Spencer Gulf

Socio-ecological assessment of the ecosystems, industries and communities of Spencer Gulf: ‘Gulfview’ interactive platform

Socio-ecological status of the Spencer Gulf 2019

Spencer Gulf socio-ecological assessment

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