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Australia-01 - Cocos Islands Integrated Marine Management Plan

by Jean Brennan last modified Jan 10, 2013 11:01 AM
World Bank/WBI’s CBNRM Initiative. January 1998. Author: Wendy Murray.


Cocos (Keeling) Islands Integrated

Marine Management Plan (IMMP)

Identification of the case

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands became an External Territory of Australia in 1955 (refer Figure 1 for location map). The Cocos (Keeling) Islands consists of 27 islands which make up two separate atolls. The smaller, uninhabited northern atoll consists of a single island, North Keeling (1.2 square kilometres), which was declared as Pulu Keeling National Park in December 1995. The Park includes a marine area extending 1.5 kilometres the Island. The inhabited southern atoll (South Keeling) is horseshoe-shaped and connected to North Keeling (24 kilometres to the north) by a submarine ridge at a depth of 800-1 000 metres. The surrounding waters are about 5 000 metres deep. South Keeling comprises a large central lagoon (about 10 kilometres across) surrounded by a chain of 26 vegetated sand cays and fringing reef. Lagoonal habitats include mudflats, seagrass beds, algal mats, sand sheets, coral rubble and live coral communities. The lagoon and the fringing reef support a wide variety of edible finfishes, molluscs, and invertebrates which form a significant marine resource.

The previously uninhabited islands were settled in 1825. Almost all of the native vegetation was cleared from the southern atoll by the beginning of this century to make way for the coconut plantations which provided the main industry until about 1985. Following a United Nations visit in 1974, in 1978 the Australian Government purchased all of the lands, excepting the family home, from the Clunies Ross family (who had been granted the islands by Queen Victoria in 1886). In 1984 through the United Nations supervised Act of Self Determination, the Cocos Malay population voted overwhelmingly in favour of political, social and economic integration with Australia. As a result, the Australian Government was committed to raising services and standards of living to comparable Australian levels within 10 years. Prior to the Government ownership of Cocos, visits by supply ships were infrequent, and the local marine resources exploited for food as well as for bartering and export . The high cost of living on Cocos, the high level of unemployment and the practice of sending gifts of seafood to friends and relatives on the mainland (who left Cocos following integration with Australia), combined with the introduction of technological changes such as monofilament nets, have resulted in the growing over-exploitation of marine resources. Conservation concepts are alien to the local community, who have only several generations of experience of island life, making management very difficult.

In 1992, a program of legislative modernisation (law reform) was initiated by the Australian Government. A component of this new legal framework was legislation to manage the marine environment. Subsequently consultants were engaged to develop the IMMP for the Islands. The intent of the Plan is to change current practices to the extent required for the sustainable use of the resources and to enable multiple uses (such as nature-based tourism, subsistence fishing and mariculture) to co-exist. Given the lack of existing commercial fishing and in recognition of the subsistence use, it was felt that a management strategy designed with the community and user groups would be the most effective. Although not present at the very first round of public consultations, I have been an active participant in all of the discussions since then and am now responsible for overseeing the implementation, running the community education programs and monitoring the effectiveness of the Plan.

The initial situation

Since settlement, there have been many changes to the natural environment of Cocos (both marine and terrestrial). As noted previously, almost all of the native vegetation was removed and seabirds were hunted for food to the extent that terrestrial native fauna is now rare on the southern atoll. North Keeling Island (now Pulu Keeling National Park) remains as the last stand of native vegetation in the region. There are plans to revegetate parts of the southern atoll, which may then be recolonised by the birds from North Keeling Island. This would improve the nature-based tourism potential.

Historical records mention large numbers of the shells of the Giant Clam (Tridachna gigas) being used for ballast and trade, and also trepang (holothurians or beche de mer) being harvested, dried and exported in large volumes. Today, there are only two known individual Giant Clams left on the atoll. Holothurians of a number of species are still present - the less palatable ones are common, but the highly edible species are only present in low numbers. With the introduction and increasing use of monofilament nets, species such as mullet are targeted - to the extent that they are now noticeably harder to catch. The rate of harvesting is unsustainable - but the situation is not irreversible. Fortunately for Cocos, over-harvesting is the main problem, there are no rivers depositing fertilisers or other forms of pollution into the waters and there is no history of reef blasting or use of fish poisons etc. If the community can agree to jointly and cooperatively manage the marine resources, and reduce the exploitation to sustainable levels, then the various lagoon ecosystems will be able to recover. The main problem is the increasing amount of netting and export to friends and relatives on the mainland.

If the rate of exploitation continues unchecked, the more palatable species will eventually disappear, and less palatable species will in turn be targeted, with the inevitable repercussions. Due to the isolation of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, food and other materials imported from mainland Australia are expensive. The 63% unemployment rate combined with the high cost of living on Cocos has resulted in an ever-increasing level of exploitation and habitat destruction as fishing pressure increases. The economic future of the Cocos Islands has been identified as nature-based tourism, so it is even more important that the situation is controlled.

The change process

The Federal Government’s Department of Territories (Island Administration) charter includes assisting the Cocos community to achieve full integration with Australia. Integration has included replacing out-dated Singapore Ordinances with modern Australian laws. The law reform process began in 1992, and is largely complete. The waters surrounding Cocos are the responsibility of the Federal Government. Outside the lagoon, commercial fishing is managed by the Federal Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA), but the waters inside the lagoon are internal waters, and not covered by the AFMA Act (the Fisheries Management Act 1991). The Federal National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 was applied to Cocos in 1992 to provide for the protection of all wildlife (both terrestrial and marine). This legislation is unique in automatically protecting all species unless specifically unprotected by Ministerial Declaration.

Discussions initiated by Parks Australia in 1993 and 1994 regarding the law reform process resulted in Parks Australia accepting responsibility for the management of the marine resources around Cocos. The decision was reached on the grounds of efficiency: Parks Australia was already present on the islands for wildlife protection and survey purposes (notably seabird work) and negotiations had commenced regarding Pulu Keeling National Park (which was to be a Federal National Park rather than a Western Australian State Park). Parks Australia felt strongly that management of the marine resources by Parks Australia would be more efficient, and could begin almost immediately. It would avoid the costs associated with establishing another Government Department on-island, and would also avoid the duplication of resources that would otherwise eventuate when issues crossed the boundaries between Government Departments. The end result is that one Department (Parks Australia) is responsible for all wildlife management outside parks and reserves (both terrestrial and marine), National Park management and recreational/subsistence fishing and mariculture.

Commercial fishing is of such a small scale (and low economic value), that AFMA are also unrepresented on the Islands. An AFMA officer visits once a year, and Parks Australia staff conduct any surveys and monitoring on their behalf. AFMA officers are flown in to take charge when any illegal foreign fishing vessels are apprehended. This cooperation between Departments allows natural resource management to become the focus of effort, rather than resolving inter-departmental linkages and responsibilities.

The outcome

Consultants were employed to prepare the IMMP and they worked closely with Parks Australia staff and the community to benefit from local knowledge. Because of the high illiteracy rate, and the fact that Cocos Malay is the main language used, the consultation process was mostly verbal, and undertaken in Cocos Malay. The process took two years and included:

     Initial meetings with community groups and organisations to explain the process, receive initial input and for the community to identify their concerns about the resources. A "Have Your Say" brochure was widely distributed, asking for verbal and written submissions.


  • The school took on the Plan as their project. They learnt about the need for a Plan and involved their parents by taking home questionnaires regarding what activities they did, where they did them and what they thought the Plan should say. The questionnaires and submissions were used to prepare the first draft Plan.


  • The draft Plan was presented to the community over ten days of meetings, then redrafted. The final draft reflected the changes the community wished to make to the draft (with some compromises), and was again discussed over another ten day period of meetings. Parks Australia staff were available at all times to discuss the proposed Plan with the community.


  • Following community acceptance of the Plan, a Community Marine Committee was formed to consider mariculture proposals and commercial fishing applications, to provide a link between the community and Parks Australia, to ensure continued community ownership of the Plan and to monitor the effectiveness of the Plan (and adjust it as required).

The next stage (currently under way), is the preparation of a pictorial and translated chart with map, showing the zones and what activities can be done where. This will show the prescriptions of the Plan, presented in a user-friendly, easily understood format. Each household will receive a copy. In addition to this, the local school (with a grant from Coastcare) has begun a fish nursery project with Parks Australia. This project aims to compare the species diversity and biomass between the identified fish nursery area (where no fish removal is permitted) and a control area over the next three years. The children will report their findings back to the community via a display and a video that they will produce. Three to four weeks of school time each year will be set aside for the project, which will address part of the curriculum for every subject. This project has encouraged a strong sense of ownership of the fish nursery area in the children, a keen desire to protect the fish in the nursery and an interest in the life histories of the local species. This will lead to a greater understanding of the local environment and processes.

The biggest hurdles to the community management of natural resources on Cocos are resistance to the ever-increasing number of rules (resulting from the law reform process), the reluctance to accept any more changes, the lack of education (compulsory education only began in 1984) and the absence of any environmental management concepts. Because the Cocos Malay language evolved in isolation, the words to explain conservation concepts don’t even exist. In the past, if a supply ship was overdue, the locals were forced to subsist on rice, seafood, seabirds and coconuts and although people did die of diseases associated with nutrient deficiencies, they didn’t die of starvation. Consequently, the people didn’t develop an understanding of the need to manage the resources in a sustainable manner. The community education program will have to explain the reasons for the need to manage the resources, and to identify the benefits that managing the resources will produce. This will obviously take many years, but understanding ecological processes will have a number of benefits:

  • it will allow the subsistence fishery to be managed sustainably, thereby enabling it to co-exist with the nature-based tourism industry currently in its infancy
  • the successful co-existence of the subsistence fishery and nature-based tourism will provide some financial independence and allow the community to move away from the current "handout " status
  • it will eventually enable the local people to progress from a subsistence fishery towards some small scale farming - pearls, trepang and clam farms are all possibilities for Cocos.

It was recognised from the beginning that the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations of the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975 would need to be changed to be able to institute a multiple use marine management strategy. Given the need to begin raising awareness regarding the current unsustainable practices, it was decided to conduct the consultation/community education phases contemporaneously with the law reform process.

The legal regime regarding marine management is still being finalised. The Minister approved changing the National Parks and Wildlife Regulations under the Act to enable ecosystem management plans to be declared legally enforceable plans. This compliments Section 58 of the Regulations under the Act which allows "approved management programs" to be declared for the management of individual species. The exact wording and the means by which the prescriptions are enforceable are still being determined, but in the meantime, the IMMP has been developed and the education campaign begun.

Lessons learned

Having one Department responsible for National Park management, wildlife management outside parks and reserves, and non-commercial fisheries is an efficient and effective means of management in isolated areas where establishment and corporate costs are extremely high. It also avoids the legal problems that arise from clashes in legislation. Given the significant common property aspect of marine resources, community involvement is essential unless large resources are available for law enforcement purposes. Explaining the reason for specific management prescriptions, and involving the community in the decision-making process are key elements in gaining community acceptance of any changes made to the existing practices. Involving the community in the monitoring process and providing regular fora for the dissemination of the results of the monitoring will keep the profile of the new management program high, and ongoing empowerment of the community through the Community Marine Committee will ensure continued support for the Plan. Through the Committee, the community accepts responsibility for the effectiveness of the Plan (and also for any problems that may arise). It is important to have a range of ages and interest groups present on the Community Marine Committee to reduce the chances of specific interests being overlooked.

The situation on Cocos is fairly uncommon in that there are few vested commercial interests and few external activities effecting the marine area. This means that there are fewer boundaries (and conflicts) between users, which makes it easier for one Department to oversee the management of the resources. The features that make the Cocos situation universally replicable include:

  • Community involvement in the planning process
  • A Community Marine Committee empowered to determine management prescriptions
  • Community education programs aimed at school children, adults and visitors regarding the reasons behind specific management prescriptions
  • Community involvement in the monitoring program to assess the effectiveness of management prescriptions
  • Regular and on-going feedback regarding the effectiveness of the management plan

The first steps have been taken regarding implementing a new, community-based marine management regime for the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Time will be the judge of its’ effectiveness.

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