Conservationists say Australia’s unique marine ecosystems have a “fighting chance” of surviving an onslaught from climate change, pollution and overfishing after the prime minister, Scott Morrison, announced $100m for ocean protection.

More than $30m will go towards protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems such as tidal marshes, mangroves and seagrass, which can store vast amounts of carbon but are declining globally due to ocean heating and coastal development.

Almost $40m extra will be spent on managing the country’s network of marine parks and $11.6m will be spent to help establish nine Indigenous protected areas in sea country.

A further $18m would protect “iconic marine species” and make fisheries more sustainable, the government said.

The announcement came as the prime minister addressed a virtual summit of global leaders, convened by US president Joe Biden.

Morrison has been under intense political and international diplomatic pressure for months over his refusal to set a net-zero emissions target for 2050 or to improve the country’s existing 2030 targets.

The US, Japan, Canada and Britain all this week announced improved medium-term emissions targets that are much more ambitious than Australia’s, which remains stuck at a 26%-28% cut compared with 2005 levels.

On Friday, Morrison told reporters damage to Australian marine ecosystems that stored carbon was releasing 3Mt of CO2 back into the atmosphere each year.

“These mangroves and environments are often referred to as the lungs of the ocean. Some might even call them the liver of the ocean in the cleansing impact they have.”

Morrison said protecting those environments that lock away carbon – known collectively as blue carbon – was a “big part of the answer” to Australia becoming a net zero emissions economy.

More than $1m would be spent on work to better account for environmental and economic benefits of blue carbon ecosystems.

The ocean was “inextricably linked” to the climate and was part of Australia’s national identity, Morrison said.

A study for the United Nations earlier this year calculated the Great Barrier Reef in Queensland, and Shark Bay and the Ningaloo coast in Western Australia, collectively stored the equivalent of more than 2bn tonnes of CO2.

Michelle Grady, director of Pew Charitable Trusts in Australia and an ocean campaigner, said the announcement represented the biggest single increase in investment across Australia’s oceans for at least a decade, maybe longer.

She said: “Today’s announcement will give Australia’s oceans a fighting chance in what is now a global race to bring endangered marine life back from the brink, to reduce entanglement in fishing gear, to restore fish stocks and to address the pernicious invasion of marine pests – all whilst making the most of our rich coastal carbon sinks, by restoring the coastal environments that support them.”

While Australia was a world leader in marine conservation, with responsibility for the third biggest expanse of ocean in the world, “for many years, we’ve seen a major gap in Australia’s ocean stewardship – investment in sound management for our ocean territory,” she said.

Darren Kindleysides, the chief executive of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said oceans were in “deep trouble” from pollution, overfishing, development, invasive species and the affects of global heating.

“Protecting our oceans must be a top priority for all Australian governments. This funding commitment is a vital and promising package of measures to address some key threats, such as the loss and degradation of coastal habitat and capture of wildlife in commercial fishing nets.”

The funding would “help plug a significant funding gap in the protection of Australia’s oceans”, the society said.

Some $5m of the money to prevent threatened species such as turtles, seabirds, dolphins and seals dying in fishing gear was “a vital step”.

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Kindleysides added: “Investing in our marine habitats and sea life brings benefits to all – our health, our wellbeing and our economy.”

Richard Leck, WWF-Australia’s head of oceans, said the new investment was “very welcome, particularly in places that recognise the crucial role oceans play in sequestering carbon.”

He added: “We are very keen to see this investment support new marine protected area declarations in our region to achieve the global goal of 30% of area being protected by 2030.”



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