Australia’s marine (un)protected areas: government zoning bias has left marine life in peril since 2012



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Bob Pressey, James Cook University; Jorge G. Álvarez-Romero, James Cook University; Rodolphe Devillers, Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), and Trevor J Ward, University of Technology Sydney

Last week Australia joined a new alliance of 40 countries pledging to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 from pollution, overfishing, climate change and other environmental threats. Australia already boasts one of the largest networks of marine protected areas in the world, with about half of Commonwealth waters around mainland Australia under some form of protection.

Job done? Actually, no.

Despite the size of our protected areas, marine wildlife continues to vanish. A government report card recently scored the Great Barrier Reef a “D” for its failing health. Meanwhile, commercial fishing depletes non-target or non-economic species as collateral damage, and damages marine habitats through trawling, the marine equivalent of clear felling forests. These issues are extensive, but poorly understood.

So why the paradox? Our research analysis reveals that size is misleading. Marine zonings vary in their effectiveness in protecting biodiversity, and zones established in 2012, 2015 and 2018 put effective protection in the wrong places.

Unhelpful from the start

In a rich, developed country, a society’s commitment to nature conservation is measured by what it’s prepared to give up. In Australia, that’s not much.

In late 2012, Labor announced a massive increase in Commonwealth marine protected areas (MPAs). But it failed to mention that the placement of “highly protected zones” — which don’t allow any commercial extraction — had no effect on oil and gas activities and a very minor effect on commercial fishing.

Fishing trawler at sea, surrounded by gulls
Many commercial fishing practices, such as trawling, damage marine ecosystems.
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As a result, the contribution of the 2012 MPAs to conservation was disproportionately small.

In 2015 the Federal Coalition changed the 2012 zonings. In 2018 the Coalition changed them again.

The Coalition was openly hostile toward the 2012 MPA expansion, so it came as no surprise the 2015 and 2018 MPA systems would become even more strongly residual — biased towards areas with least promise for extractive activities.

Our recent paper tells the story in detail, but here’s a summary.

Zoning the ocean to make almost no difference

Labor’s 2012 additions to the MPA system covered 2.4 million square kilometres, an impressive figure at first glance.

Under the Coalition, the boundaries of Labor’s new MPAs were not altered, but there were large changes to the internal zonings, which specify permitted uses, in 2015 and 2018.

The changes meant highly protected zones declined from 37% of the total MPA system in 2012 to about 22% in 2018. Other zones that allow fishing with varying restrictions, or that place few restrictions on commercial extraction, made up the rest. The conservation benefits of those other zones — dubbed “partially protected areas” — are dubious.

Coral
Last week a reef quality report card highlighted the marine environment around the Great Barrier Reef remains poor.
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How much difference did all the zoning and rezoning make to marine conservation? Very little.

That’s because, from the start, highly protected zones were put in places with no petroleum extraction and low previous fishing yield. The bias was only exaggerated in 2015, and again in 2018.




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75% of Australia’s marine protected areas are given only ‘partial’ protection. Here’s why that’s a problem


By 2018, less than 1% of the area previously used for Commonwealth pelagic longlining had been protected from longlining. Pelagic longlining involves setting baited hooks on lines that can be kilometres long, suspended in the water. It can seriously harm non-target species, including sharks and seabirds.

Likewise, only about 1.5% of Australia’s previously trawled areas became covered by zones that prohibit trawling, a practice also known to have serious biodiversity impacts, such as destroying seafloor habitat.

The zoning of the Coral Sea tells part of the story. The 2012 highly protected zones carefully avoided most commercial fishing in this vast region of open ocean, and research showed the benefits to conservation were “minimal”. When the 2012 zones were changed, the area open to fishing methods that pose ecological risks increased further.

Is Australia really leading the world?

After the latest weakening — proposed in 2017 and formalised in 2018 — of the already weak 2012 marine protection, the federal environment minister and the director of Parks Australia said the revisions achieved the right balance between conservation and use.




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The Coral Sea: an ocean jewel that needs more protection


In terms of commercial fishing, we show the “balance” was about 2% conservation and 98% use across all of Commonwealth marine waters, which cover almost six million square kilometres.

In real terms, Australia’s marine protection is minuscule, and its marine unprotected areas are vast — a failure that has attracted international criticism. In 2017, for instance, 1,286 researchers from 45 countries lambasted the federal government’s draft marine park management plans that are now in place.

The current highly protected zones might guard against future expansion of petroleum extraction and commercial fishing, as technologies and markets evolve. Unfortunately, however, the chances of that seem slim.

Australian MPA decisions since 2012 suggest strongly that, if highly protected zones are found to prevent profitable extraction, they will be downgraded or moved so they don’t get in the way.

Three ways Australia could lead the world (again)

Australia led the world with the 2004 rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a systematic exercise that placed about a third of the Park in highly protected zones. But almost 17 years on, we can see plenty of room for improvement in marine conservation as we learn what works and what doesn’t.




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How could Australia lead the world now? A first step would be to drop the deception that square kilometres say anything meaningful about conservation.

Our commitment to marine conservation will be measured by how much oil and gas we leave under the seabed, how many fish we leave in the water, and how we catch the others. Decarbonising and properly managing catchments and coastal zones will also be critical.

A second step would be to establish explicit, quantitative, scientifically informed goals for conservation of individual species and ecosystems in highly protected zones. The lack of such goals allowed zonings from 2012 to 2018 to be passed off as representative of marine environments, when they were not.




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A third step would be to achieve explicit conservation goals through consultation with diverse stakeholders. This includes co-design and co-management of coastal MPAs that empower local communities and Indigenous peoples from the outset, rather than through consultation late in the process.

After many years of debate over MPAs, some will throw their hands up at the prospect of yet more planning. But that’s what’s needed to make Australia’s MPA zoning effective, along with the (recently elusive) vision and commitment needed for political leadership in real marine conservation.The Conversation

Bob Pressey, Professor, Conservation Planning, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University; Jorge G. Álvarez-Romero, Senior Research Fellow, James Cook University; Rodolphe Devillers, Senior research scientist, Institut de recherche pour le développement (IRD), and Trevor J Ward, Visiting Fellow, University of Technology Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

>Our turtle program shows citizen science isn’t just great for data, it makes science feel personal



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Claudia Santori, University of Sydney and Ricky Spencer, Western Sydney University

Citizen science is ripe with benefits. Programs can involve hundreds, sometimes thousands, of volunteers who collect reliable, long-term and geographically widespread data. These people donate their time for a cause (or just for fun).

For biodiversity conservation, these kinds of data are invaluable to enable important large-scale projects, from assessing wildlife recovery after bushfires to shedding light on how warming oceans threaten fish.

But we’ve found the benefits of citizen science extend well beyond data collection.

In a new research paper, we show how our environmental citizen science program TurtleSAT
is not only an important source of knowledge and skill development, but also influences participants’ attitudes and behaviours towards the environment.

Saving the turtles

TurtleSAT has so far engaged more than 1,600 volunteers who collect observations of freshwater turtles. Almost 10,000 sightings have been registered since it launched in 2014. The data will ultimately help turtle conservation and management across the country.

A large freshwater turtle in Queensland. Citizen scientists throughout the country are learning to record turtle sightings and stopping turtles dying on roads or from predators.
TurtleSAT

Turtles live in most freshwater habitats across mainland Australia, from wetlands to rivers, and are a vital component of the ecosystem. For example, in previous research, we revealed turtle scavenging can remove fish carcasses from the water five times faster than natural decomposition, dramatically improving water quality.

But turtle numbers have been in steep decline since the 1970s, mainly due to fox predation, road collisions, diseases and poor water quality.




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The benefits of the TurtleSAT app to scientists have been clear from the start. Most recorded turtle sightings (alive and dead) have involved turtles crossing roads and nests that are either intact or have been destroyed by foxes.

This has allowed researchers and communities to identify road death and nesting hotspots — and then do something about it.

Creating environmental stewards

However, the benefits to participants were less clear. So, we surveyed them to gauge any changes in behaviour or attitudes since they got involved.

Of the 148 participants who responded, most (70%) said they’ve learned more about turtles and feel like they’re helping them by participating. After one of our school workshops, for example, a parent told us she didn’t know turtles could live outside the ocean until her daughter began participating in TurtleSAT.

After learning about the turtle population decline, 39% of respondents started restoring habitats, 35% protected nests and 30% implemented pest management mechanisms, such as fox control and predator exclusion fences.

A citizen scientist removing a freshwater turtle from a road in Victoria. TurtleSAT users are trained to safely remove turtles from roads before they’re hit.
TurtleSAT

Importantly, 70% of respondents said participating in the program made them more worried about turtles than they were before.

These findings show how a mostly self-directed project can provide benefits to citizen scientists, while also providing a platform for them to contribute to the conservation of animals they love.

Local issues motivate action

Citizen science programs link the fields of science and the humanities to create an educated and informed public that knows how to solve problems and, most importantly, care enough to do so.

One reason many people aren’t motivated to address climate change and other global issues is the effects are relatively distant from their day-to-day living.

Most people aren’t forced to confront the specifics of climate change (such as extreme weather disasters) in their everyday lives, and so can treat it as an abstract concept. Simply put, this doesn’t motivate people to act.

Blackened trees against a grey sky
Major weather events such as bushfires often occur away from populated areas, and so can feel like a distant issue to many people.
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Citizen science programs, however, can show how climate change does actually affect participants. They become equipped with the information and tools to make significant positive changes to their local area and, most importantly, see direct outcomes.

For example, when citizen scientists spot migratory birds in their neighbourhood, it can help researchers develop long-term databases to evaluate whether changes in migration timing can be attributed to average spring temperature changes.




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Likewise, we’re monitoring the timing of turtle nesting with TurtleSAT, as many turtles in eastern Australia are cued to nest in late spring. Similar research found Loggerhead sea turtles were nesting earlier due to warmer ocean temperatures.

This knowledge wouldn’t have been possible without long-term citizen science data.

Local action, global significance

Making a difference at a local level can even address global issues, such as extinction risks. Citizen science may now re-define the phrase “think global, act local” to “think local, act local, network global”.

The I Spy a Wollemi Pine survey, for example, encourages people from all around the world to log sightings of Wollemi pine. These trees are cultivated in many countries, but fewer than 1,000 remain in the wild.

The simple act of paying attention to nearby trees means scientists can learn what environments the Wollemi pine can tolerate, and better protect it from extinction.




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Backyard gardeners around the world are helping to save Australia’s deeply ancient Wollemi pine


Joining in is easy

Technology advances have largely driven the explosion of citizen science projects over the last decade. Most people have a computer, camera and GPS in their pockets when they carry their smartphone, so taking part in a citizen science project has never been easier.

If you’re interested in joining a project, you can jump on board one that’s already established, or even develop your own for a common environmental issue in your local area.

Long-necked turtle crossing a red road
Most recorded turtle sightings on TurtleSAT have involved turtles crossing roads.
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You can search for citizen science programs through the Australian Citizen Science Project Finder. To help you get started, check out:

  • WomSAT: if you have a passion for wombats and are concerned about road mortality and disease (such as mange)

  • Frog ID: a fantastic app where you can record frogs croaking in the night and an expert will identify the species for you

  • Sea Slug Census: snorkelers and divers can upload photos and discuss the identities of some of these weird and wonderful creatures

  • 1MillionTurtles: thanks to the success of TurtleSAT, we’re launching a community conservation program where people can actively help restore declining turtle populations.




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The Conversation


Claudia Santori, PhD candidate, University of Sydney and Ricky Spencer, Associate Professor of Ecology, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Don’t disturb the cockatoos on your lawn, they’re probably doing all your weeding for free



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Gregory Moore, The University of Melbourne

Australians have a love-hate relationship with sulphur-crested cockatoos, Cacatua galerita. For some, the noisy parrots are pests that destroy crops or the garden, damage homes and pull up turf at sports ovals.

For others, they’re a bunch of larrikins who love to play and are quintessentially Australian.

Along with other scientists, I had a unique opportunity during the COVID-19 lockdowns to study things that had intrigued me closer to home, perhaps for years. While isolating in the suburbs of Melbourne, I wanted to find out why cockatoos return to the same places, and what they’re after.

The answer? Onion grass, reams of it.

Onion grass is a significant weed, and I estimated in a recent paper that one bird gorges on about 200 plants per hour. A flock of about 50 birds can consume 20,000 plants in a couple of hours.

This significantly reduces the weed level and may make expensive herbicide use unnecessary. So if you have a large amount of onion grass on your property and are regularly visited by sulphur-crested cockatoos, it would be wise to let them do their weeding first.

When play verges on vandalism

Most of us see cockies whether we live in rural communities or major cities, but how much do you really know about them?

Two sulphur-crested cockatoos sitting on a branch
Sulphur-crested cockatoos nest in old hollow trees.
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In late winter and early spring in many parts of Australia, flocks of sulphur–crested cockatoos can be seen grazing on the ground. They’re usually found close to water, nesting in woodlands with old hollow trees, such as river red gums, Eucalyptus camaldulensis.

Where these forests and trees are being cleared, the number of cockies falls. But they are resilient and adaptable birds, and have spread their range to cities and the urban fringe, where numbers are increasing.




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The birds are known to play with fruits, hang upside down on branches or perform flying cartwheels by holding a small branch or powerline with their feet, flapping their wings as they do loop after loop.

Sometimes their play verges on vandalism as they follow tree planters, deftly pulling up just-planted trees and laying them neatly beside the hole.

While cockatoos feed on the fruits and seed of native species, they’ve adapted very quickly to the introduction of exotic species, such as onion grass from South Africa, which is plentiful and easy to harvest.

I observed flocks ranging from nine to 63 cockatoos at seven sites along the Maribyrnong River in Keilor last July and August. Onion grass was the only item on their menu.

A pest for humans, a feast for birds

Onion grass (Romulea rosea) is small and usually inconspicuous with grass-like leaves. It’s typically only noticed when it flowers in spring, producing pretty, pink and yellow-throated flowers.

Conspicuous onion grass with a small purple flower
Onion grass comes from South Africa, and is a big problem for native grasslands.
Harry Rose/Wikimedia, CC BY

Onion grass can be a serious weed that’s very difficult to control. It’s not only a problem for agricultural land, but also for recreational turf and native grasslands.

In some areas, there are nearly 5,000 onion grass plants per square metre. This is a massive number requiring costly control measures, such as spraying or scraping away the upper layer of top soil.




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The river red gum is an icon of the driest continent


Onion grass gets its name from its onion-like leaves. At the base is a small bulb, which works as a modified underground stem called a “corm”. The corm is what cockatoos will travel many kilometres for, to dig up and return to for days on end.

A brown bulb with small roots coming out
When cockatoos eat onion grass corm, it prevents the weed from regenerating.
Harry Rose/Wikimedia, CC BY

Their super weeding effort

Like other native parrots, sulphur-crested cockatoos are famously left-footed. So it was interesting to observe them primarily use their powerful beaks to pull onion grass plants from the ground and dig up corms, using their left foot only occasionally to manipulate the plant.




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The cockatoos fed for between 30 minutes and two and a half hours. At each feed, one or two sentry (or sentinel) birds, depending on the flock size, would keep watch and give raucous warning should danger threaten.

The cockies could remove a plant and corm from the ground in as little as six seconds, but sometimes it could take up to 30 seconds. They then removed and consumed a corm every 14 seconds on average in wet soil and every 18 seconds from harder, dry soil.

Eight cockatoos on grass, with autumn leaves
When flocks feed, one or two sentinel birds keep watch for danger.
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This means a flock of 63 birds could remove more than 35,400 onion grass plants in a feeding session lasting two and half hours. This is a super weeding effort by any standard!

Future partnerships

My further investigation revealed most of the corms were within 20 millimetres of the soil surface, so the holes left in the soil by the birds extracting the onion grass were shallow and quite small. This shouldn’t give seeds from onion grass any great advantage.

And they’re very efficient: the birds eat over 87% of the corms they lift, which then won’t get a chance to generate in future years. So, if we’re going to try to eradicate onion grass, it may be better to let the cockies do their work first before we humans take a turn.

We have a lot to learn about how our native species interact with introduced weeds, and more research might reveal some very useful future partnerships. They might be birdbrains, but sulphur-crested cockatoos really know their onions when it comes to, well, onion grass.




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The Conversation


Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.