Blog Threatened Species

What is the EPBC Act and how is it meant to protect our marine wildlife?

by Imogen Scott August 15, 2023
Australia’s national environment laws impact almost every aspect of AMCS’ work to protect our oceans and marine life. We have been fighting hard and will continue to do so over the next 18 months for new, strong and enforceable nature laws to replace the outdated and failing Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, or EPBC Act.

What is the EPBC Act and how is it meant to protect our marine wildlife?

The EPBC Act is Australia’s primary legislation governing the protection of nature. Since 1999 its purpose has been to protect and conserve the environment, including biodiversity, and to promote the sustainable use and management of natural resources. 

Is it working?

Given Australia’s dubious honour as the world leader in mammal extinctions, and the fact that our coral reefs, kelp forests, incredible seascapes and wildlife are reaching breaking point, it’s safe to say, no, the current nature laws are not working. They are weak, outdated and failing. Nature cannot afford any more business as usual. 

It’s time for new nature laws 

The report from the second ten yearly independent review of the EPBC Act, conducted by Professor Graeme Samuel AC, was released in October 2020. The Samuel Review unambiguously found that the EPBC Act is not fit for purpose and in need of substantial reform, suggesting a number of changes including a move to focus on outcomes rather than processes. This wasn’t a surprise for the nationwide Places You Love (PYL) alliance. AMCS is a leading member of this group of conservation organisations, who have been advocating for stronger environment laws since 2012.

To understand why and how the law needs to change, let’s take a brief look at the EPBC Act in action in relation to some of our most charismatic species – whales:

Australia’s east and west coasts provide front row seats for the annual humpback whale migration between their feeding grounds in the Antarctic and breeding areas in the warmer tropical waters in the north. Their status as cetaceans and migratory species makes them eligible for protection under the Act. 

In order to protect humpback and other whales, it is essential that their critical habitats – their feeding, breeding, nursing areas and migratory routes – are better protected. However, the Samuel Review found the Act is not providing sufficient protection for these habitats that are critical for many marine species. Instead of being focussed on these environmental outcomes, the EPBC Act currently sets out the steps to evaluate how they are impacted, in many cases losing sight of the need for greater protection in the first place.

Any human activity that may have a significant impact on whales or their habitats requires assessment and approval under the EPBC Act. This includes activities like shipping, fishing and coastal developments in areas frequented by whales. The Act requires that activities with significant impacts on whales must have mitigation measures implemented to minimise harm. For example, shipping lanes may be adjusted to avoid collision risks with whales, and fishing practices may be modified to reduce bycatch. But in reality, there is very little enforcement and compliance. The resources allocated for monitoring and enforcement are often limited, making it difficult to effectively police and regulate activities that may harm marine wildlife. Insufficient penalties and a lack of systematic monitoring are undermining the Act’s effectiveness and putting wildlife at risk.

The slow and bureaucratic processes of the Act also result in decision-making delays, which can impede action needed to address potential threats to marine wildlife and their habitats.

The EPBC Act is not only failing to prevent habitat and wildlife harm, it is failing to address the recovery of threatened species and habitats. New nature laws need to ensure that recovery is a central element of the reforms, and that well-funded recovery strategies are in place for all threatened species. 


How do we fix our nature laws?

Right now, the Australian government is rewriting our national environment laws for the first time in over 20 years. We have a once in a generation opportunity to demand strong laws that protect and help restore habitats and biodiversity. 

Some of the key ingredients of the reform that we’re asking for, alongside other Places You Love Alliance members include:

  • Strong and enforced National Environmental Standards that safeguard nature against further destruction. The Albanese government has proposed National Environmental Standards that cover:
    • Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES)
    • Environmental offsets
    • Regional planning
    • Community engagement and consultation
    • First Nations engagement and participation in decision-making.
  • Proper funding for habitat restoration and species recovery – recovery plans and strategies are pointless unless they are acted on quickly and with proper investment. 
  • The creation of an independent agency, Environment Protection Australia (EPA), that will monitor and enforce these laws. We need to close legal loopholes that favour big business over nature.

What’s the timeframe?

The Albanese Government has committed to publishing draft legislation later in 2023, to be introduced into Parliament in 2024. We need your help now to ensure the Government hears how urgently we need strong new environment laws to protect our marine species and their habitats.


Get involved

If you love our oceans, help save them – sign our petition for stronger nature laws. Because when nature is a priority for Australians, it becomes a priority for the Government too.

Sign our Petition for Stronger Nature Laws