Government review supports Australia’s marine reserves – now it’s time to move on


Michelle Voyer, University of Wollongong and Richard Ambrose Kenchington, University of Wollongong

More of Australia’s oceans should be placed under high protection, according to the long-awaited review of Commonwealth marine reserves released yesterday. The review, launched in 2014 by then prime minister Tony Abbott, largely vindicates the original planning process. It recommends zoning changes to 26 of 40 reserves, and reductions to the area available to mining, while reducing the impact on commercial fisheries.

The Commonwealth marine reserves were meant to be an easy win for the then-Labor federal government when they were declared in November 2012. All are in Commonwealth waters, from three nautical miles (about 5.5km) from the coast to 200 nautical miles (370km). Their generally remote location meant that few people would be affected.

Declaring the reserves fulfilled national and international commitments, a feat achieved by very few marine jurisdictions in the world. Australia was leading the way.

The reserves were also hugely popular. A sophisticated social media campaign run by international and national environmental groups had harnessed massive public support, especially for the declaration of a huge, no-fishing (or “no-take”) zone in the Coral Sea.

But criticisms of the parks emerged quickly leading up to and following their declaration. Predictably, commercial and recreational fishers protested the loss of fishing access. But some scientists also questioned whether these huge parks were the best way to protect our seas.

These same concerns have been raised in response to the world’s largest marine park – the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, announced last week by US President Barack Obama.

So in 2013 the incoming Abbott government suspended the parks’ management plans, making the reserves, at least temporarily, “paper parks”.

The review has restated the importance of no-take zones and recommended an increase in some of the reserves and a decrease in the Coral Sea.

So will the recommendations appease the critics?

Australia’s marine reserves as proposed in 2012.
Department of Environment, CC BY

Balancing act

The review panels had a challenging job of balancing conservation with emerging uses of marine space. Planning marine reserves is far more complex than agreeing to protect a certain amount of our oceans.

We don’t yet know a lot about ocean ecosystems. Researchers are trying to understand in more detail how marine species are connected and how they reproduce and feed in water and seabed habitats. Different species and communities have different needs and vulnerabilities.

A precautionary approach would suggest protection of large areas. But this begs the question of whether it’s most effective or fair to stakeholders to close large tracts of remote ocean to all forms of fishing, compared (for example) with infrequent, often seasonal, surface trolling of open ocean species by commercial or recreational fishers.

It is easy for planning processes to get caught up in a highly polarised debate between fishing and conservation interests. Part of the problem comes from a narrow understanding of benefits and impact, which focuses purely on numbers of people using an area and economic losses versus benefits.

Focusing on these questions alone fails to recognise the important role that values, emotion and identity play in framing the ways people respond to marine reserves.

For example, conservation groups have been perplexed by the opposition of recreational fishing groups to remote marine parks. Why would recreational fishers oppose parks that are well outside the usual fishing spots for the average fisher?

Conversely, fishing groups often feel that their interests should be prioritised over the tens of thousands of people who made submissions in support of the reserves – many of whom may never visit these areas.

A better understanding of why people fish, sail, dive, surf, do business, get involved in conservation campaigns and care about marine management will improve our understanding of what drives individual, group and community values and attitudes. We need to understand these emotional responses better before we can adequately evaluate the impact of marine reserves.

Without these data available now, the review panel has recommended adapting to new knowledge as it becomes available. It remains to be seen how fishing and environment groups will respond to these proposed changes. But it is likely they will still spark opposition despite the huge amount of time and resources that have gone into them.

How do you look after a remote marine park?

Another problem with large remote marine reserves is the high cost of managing and monitoring them.

Having people actively engaged in making use of these remote areas in low-impact ways can contribute to monitoring environmental health and discouraging illegal activities.

Other cost-effective solutions include technologies such as vessel-monitoring systems (which automatically track and survey boats), satellite monitoring, remote instruments and voluntary citizen science.

Along with the benefit of understanding how people use and value marine reserves, vessel-monitoring systems would increase safety and reduce costs of search, rescue and routine surveillance. While all Commonwealth-managed fisheries have these systems as a management requirement, most state fisheries do not. This is one example of the potential and the challenge of developing a coordinated system for managing and funding Australia’s coastal and ocean waters.

Inshore areas and many fisheries operating in Commonwealth waters are state and territory responsibilities. Many of the impacts affecting remote marine reserves come from these coastal areas.

So the success of the final zoning arrangements in achieving conservation objectives will require looking beyond state versus Commonwealth and fishery versus environment disputes.

Humpback whales migrate along Australia’s coasts.
Whale image from http://www.shutterstock.com

Where to from here?

Regardless of where you sit in this highly polarised debate, the final zoning of Australia’s marine reserves should not be seen as the end of the story.

There’s growing interest in Australia’s “blue economy”. It is time to revisit the need for a national oceans policy – a partnership between states and the Commonwealth that addresses the complexity of managing our seas. The development of Australia’s Oceans Policy in 1994 came close.

This was originally designed to address a range of issues, which included, but were not limited to, biodiversity conservation and the Commonwealth marine reserve network. Issues with negotiations prevented the policy coming to fruition.

With the reserve network now close to completion, it is time to turn attention to the range of other challenges that lie on the horizon for our oceans. No-take marine reserves provide sanctuaries and reference sites for understanding our impact on marine environments and are part of the solution to sustaining them.

It’s now time to move on, provide certainty for industry and stakeholders, and shift attention to the challenge of managing these reserves and the waters that surround them in a sustainable, productive and inclusive way. A great deal of work remains to be done.

The Conversation

Michelle Voyer, Postdoctoral research fellow, University of Wollongong and Richard Ambrose Kenchington, Professor, Marine Environment and Resource Management, University of Wollongong

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Protected areas are helping save our favourite animals – but let’s not forget the others


Megan Barnes, The University of Queensland

Protected areas, like national parks and wildlife refuges, are the cornerstones of global conservation efforts. So making sure they achieve their mission is fundamental to our goal of halting biodiversity declines.

Unfortunately, how well protected areas maintain their biodiversity remains poorly understood. While there is clear evidence that protected areas, such as Egmont National Park in New Zealand, can prevent deforestation, there is much less evidence of how well they protect our wildlife.

Our work, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined trends for more than 500 species of birds and mammals in protected areas in 72 countries. The good news is that most animals are doing well, more so for birds than mammals. But that’s no reason to become complacent.

Land surrounding Egmont National Park has been cleared to its edges.
NASA/USGS

Winners and losers

On the whole, birds are doing better than mammals, and species in Europe better than those in Africa. Species doing well include hippopotamus, northern hairy-nose wombats and waterfowl across Europe such as flamingoes in the Camargue region of France.

Those declining in protected areas include bushbuck in Selous National Park and other antelope like kob. Common birds such as common teal and European skylark are not immune, nor are a number of shorebirds globally. Tonkin snub-nosed monkeys are declining in Na Hang National Park in Vietnam, Tucuman parrots in Argentina, and the delightful mallee emu-wren declined to precipitously low levels in Ngarkat National Park, before being wiped out in South Australia in a single fire.

South Australia’s mallee emu-wrens were completely wiped out by recent bushfires.
Dean Ingwersen, Author provided

As a result of this monitoring data, many of the declining populations we studied have now been targeted for management – for instance, wetland birds across Europe. Others, like shorebirds, are faced with an intimidating cocktail of hard-to-manage international threats.

A few surprises

Unexpectedly, we also found the biggest animals were doing the best. Species like giraffes and zebras have more positive populations than smaller species like jackals.

This is surprising since larger animals tend to be slow to grow, mature and reproduce. As a result they are often slow to recover from population suppression.

Large animals often act as flagships for particular ecosystems. For instance, orang-utans are a flagship for Indonesia’s rainforests. The implication of our research is that focusing on these species is not enough to make sure all species will survive.

While more than half of protected areas we studied are getting better, there remain many protected areas where declines are still occurring worldwide. Despite this, conditions that deliver success for wildlife in protected areas are poorly understood. So, we investigated which parks were doing best and why.

The Camargue’s greater flamingos are doing well.
Megan Barnes

Making better reserves

Wildlife in protected areas is going better in wealthier, more developed countries (Europe) compared to developing countries (like in West Africa). It is hard to tell, though, if the difference is due to more resources available in developed countries, or increasing threats in developing nations.

National-scale socioeconomic conditions were also far more important in influencing how well parks protect wildlife than factors such as size, design or type. This shows it’s important to tailor management to social and political conditions. Over long timescales, the design of protected areas is likely to remain important, but our results show the importance of managing parks for more immediate threats.

A pygmy hippo.
Ben Collen

Our results suggest that active management – like managing invasive predators, preventing poaching and reducing conflict between people and wildlife – helps animals with low reproductive rates and mitigates the greater threat faced by larger species of birds and mammals due to their slow reproductive rates. Parks still need to be well-managed, though, and threats can’t become too severe – as in the recent poaching crisis.

The tools to ensure good outcomes from protected areas exist — but the will and capacity to implement them must be strengthened if we expect them to act as refuges for all species forever.

This week at the World Conservation Congress, members of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and NGOs will vote on policies to halt biodiversity declines by 2020. To date, conservationists have focused on increasing the size of the global protected area estate, but simply establishing more protected areas is not enough.

Instead, we need a radical change in commitment. To do this we need to address shortfalls in management. Ensuring both sufficient and secure finances for management and appropriate and equitable governance is just the beginning. Otherwise we’ll keep creating more parks, but wildlife will keep declining.

The Conversation

Megan Barnes, PhD Student in Conservation Science, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

US-China ratification of Paris Agreement ramps up the pressure on Australia


Peter Christoff, University of Melbourne

When President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping announced their countries’ ratification of the Paris climate agreement ahead of last weekend’s G20 meeting in Hangzhou, they boosted its chances of coming into force by the end of this year, some 12 months after the deal was brokered last December.

To enter into force, the Paris Agreement requires ratification by at least 55 nations which together account for at least 55% of global greenhouse emissions. It will then become legally binding on those parties that have both signed and ratified it. These thresholds ensure that the deal has broad legitimacy among states, but are also low enough to limit the opportunities for blocking by states that may oppose its progress.

Aside from China and the United States – the world’s two largest emitters, which together produce 39% of the world’s emissions – another 24 countries have ratified the agreement.

To get over the threshold, it now only needs the support of a handful of major emitters like the European Union (a bloc of 27 countries producing some 10% of global emissions), India, Russia or Brazil. Ratification by countries such as Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom (each of which contributes about 1.5% of emissions) would also contribute significantly to this momentum.

A new impetus

The contrasts with earlier times could not be greater. Although the Paris Agreement’s predecessor, the Kyoto Protocol, was finalised in 1997, it was resoundingly rejected by the US Congress. Its main objection was that the treaty did not impose emissions targets on developing countries, including China and India.

This blocking, predominantly by the United States (although Russia also stalled for eight years), delayed its coming into force until early 2005. Even after that, the United States – by far the world’s largest emitter at the time – continued trenchantly to oppose it for another decade.

Political turbulence around Kyoto stymied the development of a coherent global approach to greenhouse-gas reduction for more than a decade. This contributed significantly to the debacle at the 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen, where the United States and China were visibly at loggerheads.

After Copenhagen, a new approach began to evolve – one that better reflected the emissions contributions of fast-emerging economies. This included an inclusive, voluntary approach in which both developed and developing nations nominated their own preferred emissions targets.

These elements, enshrined in the Paris Agreement, were attractive to the United States and China. Moreover, as a treaty carefully crafted to allow countries to draft their own national mitigation commitments and to permit the use of existing laws, the Paris Agreement did not need to be passed by the US Congress. It could be approved by President Obama alone.

It has been widely observed that the recent level of cooperation on climate politics between China and the United States has counterbalanced growing tensions between the competing superpowers in other spheres, such as trade and geopolitical influence (especially in the South China Sea). The unprecedented joint announcement on climate change in November 2014 indicated the two nations’ mutual resolve to reach a deal. The joint ratification ceremony last weekend further consolidates this narrative of unity of national purpose on global warming.

Such cooperation has helped Obama cement his legacy with regard to action on climate change and provides an opportunity for China to ameliorate perceptions of its nationalistic unilateralism on other issues.

It also underscores the urgency of bringing the Paris Agreement into force. The treaty as it stands is largely aspirational – it is a promissory note, promising that everyone will ramp up their ambition together, rather than setting an ambitious course from the outset.

Its overarching goal of holding global warming to well below 2℃ and as close as possible to 1.5℃ can only be met if parties revise and toughen their national commitments. (Presently, aggregate commitments will lead to warming of 3℃ and possibly higher.)

However, the agreement contains mandatory mechanisms for ratcheting up collective action. For instance, it requires parties to strengthen their national targets every five years. Increasing funding transfers to developing countries for mitigation and adaptation will be propelled by its coming into force.

Both these elements are urgent if they are to be effective.

Australia left as a laggard

The US-China announcement not only increases the momentum for ratification, but also increases pressure on Australia. With the Kyoto Protocol, Australia loyally supported the United States and refused to ratify until 2007. This time, similar recalcitrance is likely to be met with strong international disapproval.

However, ratification is only the beginning. Australia will then be required to revise and toughen its targets for 2030 and beyond. Its weak 2030 mitigation target is accompanied by policies inadequate to meet this goal.

The Paris Agreement, once in force, will require a more robust Australian target to be announced by 2023 at the latest. This in turn will further highlight the gap between current and sufficient implementation measures.

The US-China ratification announcement is the next step along a path that must see Australia climb – or be dragged – out of its current climate policy torpor.

The Conversation

Peter Christoff, Associate Professor, School of Geography, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.