Beacon Island in the Houtman Abrolhos National Park. Photo by Peter Nicholas/DBCA
Beacon Island in the Houtman Abrolhos National Park. Photo by Peter Nicholas/DBCA

The national park's creation coincided with the 400-year anniversary of Dutch navigator Frederick de Houtman’s sighting of the Abrolhos. The park is vested with the Conservation and Parks Commission and managed by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA).

WA Premier Mark McGowan announced on 6 October 2017 that the national park would be established. This announcement included a budget of $10 million over two years (2019 to 2021) for the sustainable tourism development of the Abrolhos Islands. This funding will be used to:

  • develop visitor and management facilities to support sustainable tourism in the national park
  • prepare a management plan 
  • undertake other planning for the sustainable development of tourism and other industries at the Abrolhos

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park is the first national park to be created under the McGowan Government’s Plan for Our Parks initiative, which aims to create at least five million hectares of new conservation estate over the next five years.

  • Visit this website for regular updates on the development of the national park and opportunities to have your say.
  • Visitor information about the Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park is available on the Explore Parks website.

Park creation

The Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park encompasses all unoccupied islands and parts of islands not occupied by commercial fishers and aquaculture operators. The national park extends to the high water mark with curtilages around the jetty at East Wallabi Island and a proposed jetty at Beacon Island. Airstrips on North, East Wallabi and Rat islands are in the national park.

The national park is managed in accordance with the Conservation and Land Management Act 1984 (CALM Act). This provides for the use, protection and management of public lands and waters vested with the Conservation and Parks Commission. It also confers functions relating to the conservation, protection and management of biodiversity.

Body Corporate lands and the waters of the Abrolhos will continue to be vested with the Minister for Fisheries and managed by Department of Primary Industry and Regional Development (DPIRD).

Nature conservation values

The Abrolhos is an archipelago of 192 islands, islets and small rocky atolls off the mid-west coast of Western Australia. It extends more than 100km from north to south and lies between 60 and 80km off the coast, bringing it close to the edge of the continental shelf.

Some of the islands were originally low hills on the edge of Western Australia until they were separated from the mainland by sea level rise about 7000 years ago. Others were formed more recently by either wind, waves and swell or by the erosion and deposition of sediments. The islands are made of limestone under a layer of sand, cemented coral rubble and shingle.

The Leeuwin current flows past the islands bathing them in the warmer tropical waters on its journey south. This a major influence on the island’s marine flora and fauna resulting in a unique assemblage and high diversity of both tropical and temperate species.

The terrestrial flora and fauna of the Abrolhos islands are unique in being separated from the mainland and evolving in isolation for thousands of years. With the added benefit of being free of feral cats and foxes the islands offer a safe haven for numerous species of fauna, many of which are of special conservation interest.

Bird life

The Abrolhos Islands form the largest and most species rich seabird breeding area in the eastern Indian Ocean. Most of the islands in the archipelago have bird nesting and breeding sites. In addition to seabirds, the islands are home to vulnerable and endangered shorebirds, and migratory waders including several critically endangered species - the curlew sandpiper, great knot, eastern curlew and bar-tailed godwit.

Mammals

The Australian sea lion is one of the rarest species of pinnipeds in the world, occurring only in Western Australia and southern Australia. The Abrolhos Islands mark the northernmost limit of their range. The islands are also home to important mammal fauna including the tammar wallaby (Macropus eugenii) and southern bush rat (Rattus fuscipes).

Reptiles

There are 25 reptile species across the various islands including the vulnerable dwarf bearded dragon.

Vegetation

Fragile coastal vegetation makes up the majority of the terrestrial flora. Surveys have recorded 201 native plant species including four priority species and several communities of special conservation interest including mangroves (Avicennia marina), saltbush flats and Atriplex cinerea dwarf shrubland.

Heritage values

Dutch navigator Frederik de Houtman was the first European to encounter the low-lying islands on 29 July 1619. He named them the Abrolhos Islands. Sailors of the 1600s used the Portuguese cry ‘Abrolhos’ (open your eyes) to warn of offshore reefs or other spiked obstructions in the sea. When Houtman narrowly missed being wrecked, he most likely wrote this as a caution in the empty space on his chart to warn other sailors of the dangers.

Wrecks

The rugged nature of the Abrolhos coastline is clearly demonstrated by the number of ships and boats that have been wrecked on the islands over time. These include early Dutch sailing vessels en route to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The resulting shipwrecks created the earliest European archaeological sites in Australia. The Batavia (1629) wreck is located in the Wallabi Group and is well known for its horrific story of mutiny and subsequent massacre. 

The ‘Batavia shipwrecks and survivor camps 1629’ is on Australia’s iconic National Heritage List, and has additional protection under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

Survivors of the wreck of the Zeewijk (1727) wrecked on Half Moon Reef in the Pelsaert Group camped on Gun Island for nine months. They used timbers from the wreck to construct a small boat to sail to Batavia (now Jakarta). 

Eighteen other historic wrecks have been discovered in Abrolhos waters. Another 31 wrecks remain undiscovered. Historic shipwrecks and associated land sites at the Abrolhos are protected under State and Commonwealth law. The Western Australian Museum is responsible for the management of all historic shipwrecks in WA under the Commonwealth's Underwater Cultural Heritage Act 2018, and the State’s Maritime Archaeology Act 1973.

Artefacts from BataviaZeewijk and other historic shipwrecks can be seen in the WA Museum of Geraldton, and WA Shipwrecks Museum in Fremantle.

Commercial activities

The commercial extraction of guano for fertiliser began in 1847 and mining was conducted on several islands across the three island groups until 1946. Remnants of the industry including tramways, machinery, stone jetties, ruins and landscape modifications are still visible on some islands.

Commercial fishing also contributes to the heritage values of the Abrolhos. The western rock lobster (Panulirus cygnus) is Western Australia’s most valuable commercial fishery. The waters around the Abrolhos are an important lobster-breeding site.

Strategic plan

A strategic plan will be prepared to communicate the State Government’s vision and goals for management of the Abrolhos Islands. The strategic plan will consider constraints to sustainable use and development, and propose initiatives to facilitate development opportunities. The strategic plan will outline collaborative inter-agency arrangements that maximise resource sharing and improve whole-of-government efficiency in management of the Abrolhos.

Management plan

DBCA prepares management plans for parks and reserves in accordance with the CALM Act. This is done on behalf of the Conservation and Parks Commission and in consultation with the community and stakeholders. Management plans consider the natural, cultural, visitor use, community, sustainable resource and economic values of the protected area. They also guide long-term management directions, by outlining objectives and strategies for a 10-year period.

The planning process for the Houtman Abrolhos Islands National Park will involve:

  1. collection and analysis of background information about the national park values and management issues
  2. community and stakeholder consultation
  3. preparation of the draft management plan
  4. release of the draft management plan for public comment 
  5. analysis of submissions received during the public comment period
  6. preparation and release of the final management plan

The management plan will likely be finalised in 2021. Further information will be provided on this website about opportunities for the community to be involved in the planning process.

Visitor master plan

The visitor master plan is a guiding document for tourism and visitor management for the national park. It will provide context and detail for inclusion in the management plan.

The visitor master plan will deliver:

  • an overall vision for visitor and tourism management of the Abrolhos
  • documented values and opportunities for recreation and tourism
  • key directions for tourism and visitor management in each of the island groups
  • guidelines for the development of individual visitor master plans for each of the island groups
  • a coordinated approach to visitor management and tourism across Government and community, including DPIRD, Western Australian Museum, Tourism WA, Mid West Development Commission, City of Greater Geraldton, Abrolhos Bodies Corporates and the Western Australian community

The plan is being developed with input from stakeholders such as community interest groups, commercial fishers, conservation groups and State Government departments. Workshops and discussions have provided valuable information to establish context and analysis of the islands for inclusion in the plan.

The visitor master plan will continue to be refined and remain a draft until the management plan is finalised.

Operations and management

The State Government requires a whole-of-government approach to management of the Abrolhos. While several government agencies have statutory responsibilities for management, the primary, day-to day management requirements will be delivered by DBCA (for the national park) and DPIRD (for the Body Corporate lands and the waters of the Abrolhos).

DBCA and DPIRD are working together to maximise the effectiveness and cost efficiency of operational activities at the Abrolhos, including through shared knowledge, expertise and resources.

Visitor facilities

Significant infrastructure investment is proposed to support sustainable tourism in the national park. This investment in tourism infrastructure will focus on East Wallabi and Beacon islands. It will replace existing dilapidated facilities, manage risks to visitor safety and interpret the natural and heritage values of these fascinating destinations.

Subject to detailed planning and environmental assessment, the following infrastructure is proposed to be completed mid-2021.

East Wallabi jetty

  • Replace the existing jetty to address issues of accessibility, jetty height, water depth and berthing space

East Wallabi tourist and airstrip facilities

  • Build new shelters, toilets, paths and interpretation to improve visitor access, experience and safety
  • Redesign the airstrip precinct to better allow for passenger access and operational efficiency

Beacon Island tourist infrastructure

  • Establish a small craft landing jetty and appropriate visitor facilities to interpret and protect the island’s natural and heritage values

National park operations base

  • Establish accommodation, storage and management facilities for DBCA, DPIRD and other Government use, potentially on East Wallabi Island

Commercial tour operator licensing

Commercial or tourism operators in the new national park will need to obtain a commercial operations licence from DBCA. Existing licensing arrangements will continue while the department undertakes visitor and park planning, with the view to introducing new licences from 1 July 2020.

DBCA issues licences to manage the appropriate commercial use of parks and reserves, including access and activities. This will help ensure the park’s natural and cultural values are protected for current and future generations.

More information on conducting commercial activities and applications forms are available on the Explore Parks website.

Page reviewed 10 Dec 2019