The outstanding values of the Kimberley marine environment

Few large-scale marine areas on our planet remain rich in conservation values and largely beyond the reach of industrial, commercial and residential development.  The Kimberley is one of a very few such places left on the planet.

This marine area is recognised as one of the world’s most ecologically diverse, and in the first global analysis of human impacts on marine ecosystems, the environment of northern Australia, including the Kimberley, was rated as one of the few relatively pristine coastal areas left on Earth, the other identified areas being confined to the polar regions (Halpern et al. 2008).  Up until now, the remoteness of this area has protected this beautiful environment from impacts felt elsewhere.  For this reason too, we are only just beginning to properly understand the full suite of environmental values.

Traditional Owners of this coast have of course known the value of their sea country for many tens of thousands of years.


Marine protected area planning

Commonwealth waters

The Australian government has started a marine planning process to establish a national network of marine reserves throughout Australia’s Commonwealth waters.  The Kimberley falls within Northwest Region, which covers over 1 million km2, from Kalbarri right up to the NT border.

The federal government is conducting marine bioregional planning right around the country in order to establish a national network of marine reserves in Commonwealth waters.  The North West Region is next in line to begin this planning process. We are fully engaged in this process and will be working hard to keep the the community involved with this important conservation planning process.

Less than 1% of the Kimberley’s Commonwealth waters are in protected areas. The rest is open to extractive industries including fishing and offshore oil and gas exploration and production. This process is supposed to establish and manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative network of MPAs.  These will contribute to the long term ecological viability of marine and estuarine systems, to maintain ecological processes and systems, and to protect Australia’s biological diversity at all levels.

The Australian Government has three main elements to its planning approach:

  • Each distinct provincial bioregion is to be represented
  • Design of the network should be sufficient to achieve conservation of major ecosystem  functions and features
  • Network should properly represent the identified habitats, plants and animals characteristic of each bioregion.

We’ll be working hard at EK to see this approach is upheld to deliver a large network of fully protected sanctuaries in the North West Region.

The Kimberley’s State Waters

The State government is planning four new marine parks in the state waters of the Kimberley.

CAMDEN SOUND: This will be the first of the four marine parks delivered by the State government in the Kimberley.  A draft indicative management plan was released for comment last year (see here).  Camden Sound is a spectacular part of the Kimberley, and now understood to be a principal calving nursery for the 25,000 strong Western Australian population of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), likely to be the largest humpback population in the world (Jenner et al 2001) .  The whales will visit the Kimberley coast each season after feeding in the waters of the Antarctic and Southern Oceans.

ROEBUCK BAY: Yawuru are the Traditional Owners of Roebuck Bay and secured an historic native title claim in 2008.  Yawuru are now working with DEC to determine a draft plan for a marine park in Roebuck Bay.  There is a great opportunity to recognise the full suite of cultural and environmental values in the Bay.

Roebuck Bay is no less than eight times the size of Sydney Harbour. Spring tides (i.e. maximum range) expose almost half the Bay, or about 190km2 of mudflats. These extraordinary mudflats are recognised as some of the most productive in the world, supporting an extroardinarily rich benthic invertebrate community.  These mudflat-dwelling critters in turn support support one of the largest aggregations of shorebirds found anywhere in the southern hemisphere.  Much of the Bay is Ramsar-listed, largely due to its international importance for migratory birds.

The values of the Bay extend beyond birds however -  the soft coastal mudflats, creeks, estuaries and mangrove forests of the Bay support a number of marine species of high conservation significance.  These include dugong and a number of turtle and sawfish species.  Humpback whales are also sometimes seen in the Bay on their northern migration to calving grounds further along the Kimberley coast.

There are three dolphin species known to inhabit the Bay, including Australia’s only endemic dolphin, the Australian snubfin dolphin (Orcaella heinsohni).  This is the first new dolphin species to be recognised worldwide in over 50 years (Beasley et al. 2005).  Other dolphin species are in decline throughout much of their range in coastal Asia due to a range of threats.  Remarkably, the largest known population of this EPBC-listed Australian species is found in Roebuck Bay – 154 individuals recorded to date (Thiele 2010).   The extensive mangrove communities (‘mangals’) lining its shores act as an important nursery area for prawns, mudcrabs and fish (RBWG 2011).

This page of the website is under construction, and so is incomplete.  The detail on Eighty Mile Beach and North Kimberley is soon to come.



Beasley, I., Robertson, K.M and Arnold, P. (2005). Description of a new dolphin, the Australian Snubfin dolphin Orcaella heinsohni sp.n. (Cetacea, Delphinidae). Marine Mammal Science 21(3): 365-400.

Halpern et al. (2008)   A Global Map of Human Impact on Marine Ecosystems.  Science 15 February 2008: Vol. 319 no. 5865 pp. 948-952

Jenner, K.C.S., Jenner, M.N & McCabe, K.A. (2001) Geographical and temporal movements of humpback whales in Western Australian waters APPEA Journal, Western Australia.

RBWG (2011). Roebuck Bay Working Group website

Theile, D. (2010). Collision Course: Snubfin Dolphin injuries in Roebuck Bay. A report prepared for WWF Australia.