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.
Shutterstock

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.
Shutterstock

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.




Read more:
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.




Read more:
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.




Read more:
The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. There are a whopping 45 reasons why


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.




Read more:
Humans threaten the Antarctic Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. A marine protected area is long overdue


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.

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



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John Turnbull, UNSW; Carly Cook, Monash University; Emma Johnston, UNSW; Graeme Clark, UNSW, and Kelsey Roberts, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York)

A global coalition of more than 50 countries have this week pledged to protect over 30% of the planet’s lands and seas by the end of this decade. Their reasoning is clear: we need greater protection for nature, to prevent further extinctions and protect the life-sustaining ecosystems crucial to human survival.

The globally recognised tool to safeguard marine biodiversity is to designate a “marine protected area”. But not all protected areas are created equal.

The level of protection these areas provide depends on the activities permitted in their boundaries. For example, in “fully” protected areas, no plants or animals can be removed or harmed. Meanwhile, “partially” protected areas allow various extractive activities to occur, such as fishing and sometimes even mining.

Australia prides itself on having one of the largest marine protected area networks in the world, which includes iconic locations such as the Great Barrier Reef, Jervis Bay in New South Wales, Wilson’s Promontory in Victoria and Rottnest Island in Western Australia. But only one quarter of this network is fully protected.

The remaining three quarters are only partially protected, with vast areas allowing fishing, aquaculture and mining exploration. This is despite industrial-scale extraction of resources going against international guidelines for protected areas.

So why is this a problem? Our two recent research papers show partially protected areas don’t contribute much to wildlife conservation, yet take valuable conservation resources away from fully protected areas, which need them more.

A vibrant purple and red nudis near the ocean floor.
Purple dragon (Flabellina rubrolineata) in Nelson Bay. Fully protected areas have 30% more marine life than unprotected areas.
John Turnbull, Author provided

The gap between fully and partially protected areas

Our landmark study, published today, looked at marine protected areas in southern Australia. We gathered social and ecological data, including conducting 439 interviews, across five states and 7,000 kilometres of coastline.

We found partially protected areas had no more fish, invertebrates or algae than unprotected areas. Fully protected areas, by comparison, had 30% more fish species and over twice the total weight of fish compared to unprotected areas.




Read more:
Why marine protected areas are often not where they should be


We also found partially protected areas were no more of an attraction to locals and visitors than unprotected areas — they had similar numbers and mix of users, such as walkers, swimmers, fishers and divers.

On the other hand, fully protected areas were attractive to locals and visitors for their abundant wildlife and level of protection. They had twice as many divers and more than three times as many snorkelers compared to unprotected areas.

What’s more, swimmers, divers and snorkelers said they experience significantly more marine life in fully protected areas, but not partially protected areas.

Red coral with scuba diver in the background
A sea fan, part of the abundant wildlife in in Lord Howe Island.
John Turnbull, Author provided

Defying public expectations

The Australian marine protected area network has been moving further away from public expectations. In a 2020 social study, researchers found Australians are generally confused about what activities are permitted in these areas.

Survey respondents were presented with the full list of activities allowed within partially protected areas, and asked to indicate which activities they understood to be permitted or prohibited within marine protected areas in Australia.

Overwhelmingly, they believed marine protected areas offer strict protection to the marine environment, preventing all types of extractive uses, including recreational fishing.

Snorkelers in Coral Bay
Swimmers, divers and snorkelers said they experience significantly more marine life in fully protected areas, but not partially protected areas.
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The majority of Australia’s marine protected area network allow for commercial fishing, but few respondents were aware of this. Fewer still were aware large areas permit destructive activities, such as bottom trawling, which can destroy the seabed. The research team also documented many cases where protection has been downgraded, such as the Solitary Islands and Jervis Bay Marine Parks in NSW.

It’s clear Australians expect the marine protected area network to adequately safeguard our unique wildlife. Yet these findings show their views are in stark contrast to the reality of marine environmental protection.

A matter of money

There are costs associated with partially protected areas – they consume conservation resources and occupy space that could otherwise be allocated to more effective protection. In fact, research from 2011 found areas with a mixture of partial and full protection are up to twice as expensive to manage than a simpler fully protected area.

Partially protected areas do have a role in our overall marine network, but they should be used for specific purposes such as enabling traditional management practices, protecting important breeding sites, or acting as buffer zones around fully protected areas.




Read more:
Changes to Australia’s marine reserves leave our oceans unprotected


The recent changes to Australia’s marine reserve network represent an extremely worrying trend, as fully protected areas such as in the Coral Sea and Batemans Bay have been opened up to fishing.

Given the uncertainty surrounding the effectiveness of partially protected areas globally, at a time when we face increasing challenges from climate change and loss of biodiversity, the findings of our two recent Australian studies indicate we should be aiming for more fully protected areas, not less.

If the world is to protect 30% of all lands and seas by the end of this decade, those protected areas need to be monitored closely to ensure they are delivering on their goals and expectations.




Read more:
Worried about Earth’s future? Well, the outlook is worse than even scientists can grasp


The Conversation


John Turnbull, Postdoctoral research associate, UNSW; Carly Cook, Lecturer Head, Cook Research Group; School of Biological Sciences , Monash University; Emma Johnston, Professor and Dean of Science, UNSW; Graeme Clark, Senior Research Associate in Ecology, UNSW, and Kelsey Roberts, Post doctoral researcher at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, Stony Brook University (The State University of New York)

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

More fish, more fishing: why strategic marine park placement is a win-win



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Marine parks are good for fish – especially if they’re in the right areas.
Epstock/Shutterstock

Kerstin Jantke, University of Hamburg; Alienor Chauvenet, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; James Allan, The University of Queensland; James Watson, The University of Queensland, and Kendall Jones, The University of Queensland

Australia has some of the most spectacular marine ecosystems on the planet – including, of course, the world-famous Great Barrier Reef. Many of these places are safe in protected areas, and support a myriad of leisure activities such as recreational fishing, diving and surfing. No wonder eight in ten Aussies live near the beach.

Yet threats to marine ecosystems are becoming more intense and widespread the world over. New maps show that only 13% of the oceans are still truly wild. Industrial fishing now covers an area four times that of agriculture, including the farthest reaches of international waters. Marine protected areas that restrict harmful activities are some of the last places where marine species can escape. They also support healthy fisheries and increase the ability of coral reefs to resist bleaching.




Read more:
Most recreational fishers in Australia support marine sanctuaries


One hundred and ninety-six nations, including Australia, agreed to international conservation targets under the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. One target calls for nations to protect at least 10% of the world’s oceans. An important but often overlooked aspect of this target is the requirement to protect a portion of each of Earth’s unique marine ecosystems.

How are we tracking?

The world is on course to achieve the 10% target by 2020, with more than 7.5% of the ocean already protected. However, our research shows that many marine protected areas are located poorly, leaving many ecosystems underprotected or not protected at all.

What’s more, this inefficient placement of marine parks has an unnecessary impact on fishers. While marine reserves typically improve fisheries’ profitability in the long run, they need to be placed in the most effective locations.

We found that since 1982, the year nations first agreed on international conservation targets, an area of the ocean almost three times the size of Australia has been designated as protected areas in national waters. This is an impressive 20-fold increase on the amount of protection that was in place beforehand.

But when we looked at specific marine ecosystems, we found that half of them fall short of the target level of protection, and that ten ecosystems are entirely unprotected. For example, the Guinea Current off the tropical West African coast has no marine protected areas, and thus nowhere for its wildlife to exist free from human pressure. Other unprotected ecosystems include the Malvinas Current off the southeast coast of South America, Southeast Madagascar, and the North Pacific Transitional off Canada’s west coast.

Marine park coverage of global ecosystems. Light grey: more than 10% protection; dark grey: less than 10% protection; red: zero protection.
Author provided

Australia performs comparatively well, with more than 3 million square km of marine reserves covering 41% of its national waters. Australia’s Coral Sea Marine Park is one of the largest marine protected areas in the world, at 1 million km². However, a recent study by our research group found that several unique ecosystems in Australia’s northern and eastern waters are lacking protection.

Furthermore, the federal government’s plan to halve the area of strict “no-take” protection inside marine parks does not bode well for the future.

How much better can we do?

To assess the scope for improvement to the world’s marine parks, we predicted how the protected area network could have been expanded from 1982.

With a bit more strategic planning since 1982, the world would only need to conserve 10% of national waters to protect all marine ecosystems at the 10% level. If we had planned strategically from as recently as 2011, we would only need to conserve 13% of national waters. If we plan strategically from now on, we will need to protect more than 16% of national waters.

If nations had planned strategically since 1982, the world’s marine protected area network could be a third smaller than today, cost half as much, and still meet the international target of protecting 10% of every ecosystem. In other words, we could have much more comprehensive and less costly marine protection today if planning had been more strategic over the past few decades.

The lack of strategic planning in previous marine park expansions is a lost opportunity for conservation. We could have met international conservation targets long ago, with far lower costs to people – measured in terms of a short-term loss of fishing catch inside new protected areas.

This is not to discount the progress made in marine conservation over the past three decades. The massive increase of marine protected areas, from a few sites in 1982, to more than 3 million km² today, is one of Australia’s greatest conservation success stories. However, it is important to recognise where we could have done better, so we can improve in the future.

Australia’s marine park network.
Author provided

This is also not to discount protected areas. They are important but can be placed better. Furthermore, long-term increases in fish populations often outweigh the short-term cost to fisheries of no-take protected areas.

Two steps to get back on track

In 2020, nations will negotiate new conservation targets for 2020-30 at a UN summit in China. Targets are expected to increase above the current 10% of every nation’s marine area.

We urge governments to rigorously assess their progress towards conservation targets so far. When the targets increase, we suggest they take a tactical approach from the outset. This will deliver better outcomes for nature conservation, and have less short-term impact on the fishing industry.




Read more:
More than 1,200 scientists urge rethink on Australia’s marine park plans


Strategic planning is only one prerequisite for marine protected areas to effectively protect unique and threatened species, habitats and ecosystems. Governments also need to ensure protected areas are well funded and properly managed.

These steps will give protected areas the best shot at halting the threats driving species to extinction and ecosystems to collapse. It also means these incredible places will remain available for us and future generations to enjoy.The Conversation

Kerstin Jantke, Postdoctoral Researcher on conservation biology, University of Hamburg; Alienor Chauvenet, Lecturer, Griffith University; Hugh Possingham, Professor, The University of Queensland; James Allan, Postdoctoral research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, The University of Queensland; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland, and Kendall Jones, PhD candidate, Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, The University of Queensland

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

The majority of people who see poaching in marine parks say nothing



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Marine parks protect fragile ecosystems, like coral reefs.
Justin Rizzari

Brock Bergseth, James Cook University; Georgina Gurney, James Cook University, and Joshua Cinner, James Cook University

What would you do if you saw someone breaking the law? Would you report the offender to the police? Confront them? Or would you do nothing?

We recently asked more than 2,000 fishers in seven countries what they would do if they saw a poacher in a protected marine area.

Poaching – the illegal harvest of animals – plagues many of the world’s marine protected areas. Illegal fishing undermines marine parks, and can threaten chronically over-fished species.




Read more:
How to tackle the rising tide of poaching in Australia’s tropical seas


A key problem is the lack of enforcement resources. An increasing number of governments and management agencies are encouraging fishers to help, by understanding marine protection rules and reporting poachers.

Yet little is known about how fishers respond when they witness poaching.

If you see something, say…nothing

We surveyed more than 2,000 fishers near 55 marine protected areas in Kenya, Tanzania, Madagascar, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Costa Rica, and Australia, asking if they had recently seen someone poaching – and if so, what they did.

We found nearly half had witnessed poaching in the last 12 months, and the most common response was to do nothing.

This was particularly prevalent on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, where nearly 80% of fishers did nothing after observing poaching. In six of the seven countries we surveyed, fishers said their inaction was because they wanted to avoid conflict – a sensible strategy in places such as Costa Rica, where illegal drugs are commonly trafficked on boats from South America to the USA.




Read more:
Why poachers persist in hunting bushmeat — even though it’s dangerous


However, avoiding conflict was rarely the rationale around the Great Barrier Reef. Fishers in the Reef cited three main reasons for inaction:

  1. uncertainty as to whether it was illegal fishing
  2. a belief it was not their concern or responsibility
  3. perceived obstacles to reporting (such as not knowing where or how to report).

Given the growing concern over the health and future of the Reef, it’s important to enlist fishers in the fight against poachers. Encouragingly, many of the reasons for inaction can be fixed with better education and community outreach efforts.

Poaching plagues the world’s marine protected areas, largely due to a lack of enforcement resources. Fishers like the one above may be able to provide much needed surveillance and reporting, but care needs to be taken to ensure they are not put at risk in doing so.
Brock Bergseth

For instance, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority already has a hotline that fishers can call to report suspected poaching. But we found fishers regularly said they did not know how or where to report.

Promoting the hotline – perhaps by publicising times when it led to a poacher being fined or charged – would serve a double-purpose. It would be more accessible to legitimate fishers, and act as a deterrent. Our past research has found that a perceived low risk of detection acts as a motivation to poach.

Legitimate fishers want to help

It’s important to remember the vast majority of all fishers on the Great Barrier Reef do not poach. Almost all fishers think poaching is both socially and personally unacceptable.

But previous research suggests poachers do tend to over estimate how common poaching is. This is called “false consensus effect” in psychology, and helps poachers to justify their poaching behaviours because they believe “everyone else does it”.

By promoting understanding of anti-poaching rules, and actively enlisting fishers as environmental stewards, we can reduce the (false) idea that poaching is common, justifiable and harmless.




Read more:
Why it’s so hard to fight fisheries crime


Defending environmental rights can be a risky business and can expose fishers to potentially harmful retaliation by poachers; we certainly don’t suggest fishers take the law into their own hands if they witness poaching.

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The Conversation

But there are many non-risky ways for fishers to report poaching, such as hotlines in the case of the Great Barrier Reef. Promoting these avenues can help address the enforcement shortfall that is severely limiting the success of marine parks around the world.

Brock Bergseth, Postdoctoral research fellow, James Cook University; Georgina Gurney, Environmental Social Science Research Fellow, James Cook University, and Joshua Cinner, Professor & ARC Future Fellow, ARC Centre of Excellence, Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

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

More than 1,200 scientists urge rethink on Australia’s marine park plans


Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia

The following is a statement from the Ocean Science Council of Australia, an internationally recognised independent group of university-based Australian marine researchers, and signed by 1,286 researchers from 45 countries and jurisdictions, in response to the federal government’s draft marine parks plans.


We, the undersigned scientists, are deeply concerned about the future of the Australian Marine Parks Network and the apparent abandoning of science-based policy by the Australian government.

On July 21, 2017, the Australian government released draft management plans that recommend how the Marine Parks Network should be managed. These plans are deeply flawed from a science perspective.

Of particular concern to scientists is the government’s proposal to significantly reduce high-level or “no-take” protection (Marine National Park Zone IUCN II), replacing it with partial protection (Habitat Protection Zone IUCN IV), the benefits of which are at best modest but more generally have been shown to be inadequate.


Read more: Australia’s new marine parks plan is a case of the emperor’s new clothes.


The 2012 expansion of Australia’s Marine Parks Network was a major step forward in the conservation of marine biodiversity, providing protection to habitats and ecological processes critical to marine life. However, there were flaws in the location of the parks and their planned protection levels, with barely 3% of the continental shelf, the area subject to greatest human use, afforded high-level protection status, and most of that of residual importance to biodiversity.

The government’s 2013 Review of the Australian Marine Parks Network had the potential to address these flaws and strengthen protection. However, the draft management plans have proposed severe reductions in high-level protection of almost 400,000 square kilometres – that is, 46% of the high-level protection in the marine parks established in 2012.

Commercial fishing would be allowed in 80% of the waters within the marine parks, including activities assessed by the government’s own risk assessments as incompatible with conservation. Recreational fishing would occur in 97% of Commonwealth waters up to 100km from the coast, ignoring the evidence documenting the negative impacts of recreational fishing on biodiversity outcomes.

Under the draft plans:

  • The Coral Sea Marine Park, which links the iconic Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to the waters of New Caledonia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (also under consideration for protection), has had its Marine National Park Zones (IUCN II) reduced in area by approximately 53% (see map below)

  • Six of the largest marine parks have had the area of their Marine National Park Zones IUCN II reduced by between 42% and 73%

  • Two marine parks have been entirely stripped of any high-level protection, leaving 16 of the 44 marine parks created in 2012 without any form of Marine National Park IUCN II protection.

Proposed Coral Sea Marine Park zoning, as recommended by independent review (left) and in the new draft plan (right), showing the proposed expansion of partial protection (yellow) vs full protection (green).
From http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

The replacement of high-level protection with partial protection is not supported by science. The government’s own economic analyses also indicate that such a reduction in protection offers little more than marginal economic benefits to a very small number of commercial fishery licence-holders.

Retrograde step

This retrograde step by Australia’s government is a matter of both national and international significance. Australia has been a world leader in marine conservation for decades, beginning with the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in the 1970s and its expanded protection in 2004.

At a time when oceans are under increasing pressure from overexploitation, climate change, industrialisation, and plastics and other forms of pollution, building resilience through highly protected Marine National Park IUCN II Zones is well supported by decades of science. This research documents how high-level protection conserves biodiversity, enhances fisheries and assists ecosystem recovery, serving as essential reference areas against which areas that are subject to human activity can be compared to assess impact.

The establishment of a strong backbone of high-level protection within Marine National Park Zones throughout Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone would be a scientifically based contribution to the protection of intact marine ecosystems globally. Such protection is consistent with the move by many countries, including Chile, France, Kiribati, New Zealand, Russia, the UK and US to establish very large no-take marine reserves. In stark contrast, the implementation of the government’s draft management plans would see Australia become the first nation to retreat on ocean protection.

Australia’s oceans are a global asset, spanning tropical, temperate and Antarctic waters. They support six of the seven known species of marine turtles and more than half of the world’s whale and dolphin species. Australia’s oceans are home to more than 20% of the world’s fish species and are a hotspot of marine endemism. By properly protecting them, Australia will be supporting the maintenance of our global ocean heritage.

The finalisation of the Marine Parks Network remains a remarkable opportunity for the Australian government to strengthen the levels of Marine National Park Zone IUCN II protection and to do so on the back of strong evidence. In contrast, implementation of the government’s retrograde draft management plans undermines ocean resilience and would allow damaging activities to proceed in the absence of proof of impact, ignoring the fact that a lack of evidence does not mean a lack of impact. These draft plans deny the science-based evidence.

We encourage the Australian government to increase the number and area of Marine National Park IUCN II Zones, building on the large body of science that supports such decision-making. This means achieving a target of at least 30% of each marine habitat in these zones, which is supported by Australian and international marine scientists and affirmed by the 2014 World Parks Congress in Sydney and the IUCN Members Assembly at the 2016 World Conservation Congress in Hawaii.


The ConversationYou can read a fully referenced version of the science statement here, and see the list of signatories here.

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia

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

Australia’s new marine parks plan is a case of the Emperor’s new clothes



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Orca family group at the Bremer Canyon off WA’s south coast.
R. Wellard, Author provided

Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia and David Booth, University of Technology Sydney

The federal government’s new draft marine park plans are based on an unsubstantiated premise: that protection of Australia’s ocean wildlife is consistent with activities such as fishing and oil and gas exploration.

Under the proposed plans, there would be no change to the boundaries of existing marine parks, which cover 36% of Commonwealth waters, or almost 2.4 million square kilometres. But many areas inside these boundaries will be rezoned to allow for a range of activities besides conservation.

The plans propose dividing marine parks into three types of zones:

  • Green: “National Park Zones” with full conservation protection
  • Yellow: “Habitat Protection Zones” where fishing is allowed as long as the seafloor is not harmed
  • Blue: “Special Purpose Zones” that allow for specific commercial activities.

Crucially, under the new draft plans, the amount of green zones will be almost halved, from 36% to 20% of the marine park network, whereas yellow zones will almost double from 24% to 43%, compared with when the marine parks were established in 2012.

The government has said that this approach will “allow sustainable activities like commercial fishing while protecting key conservation features”.

But like the courtiers told to admire the Emperor’s non-existent new clothes, we’re being asked to believe something to be true despite strong evidence to the contrary.

The Emperor’s unrobing

The new plans follow on from last year’s release of an independent review, commissioned by the Abbott government after suspending the previous network of marine reserves implemented under Julia Gillard in 2012.

Yet the latest draft plans, which propose to gut the network of green zones, ignore many of the recommendations made in the review, which was itself an erosion of the suspended 2012 plans.

The extent of green zones is crucial, because the science says they are the engine room of conservation. Fully protected marine national parks – with no fishing, no mining, and no oil and gas drilling – deliver far more benefits to biodiversity than other zone types.

The best estimates suggest that 30-40% of the seascape should ideally be fully protected, rather than the 20% proposed under the new plans.

Partially protected areas, such as the yellow zones that allow fishing while protecting the seabed, do not generate conservation benefits equivalent to those of full protection.

While some studies suggest that partial protection is better than nothing, others suggest that these zones offer little to no improvement relative to areas fully open to exploitation.

Environment minister Josh Frydenberg has pointed out that, under the new plans, the total area zoned as either green or yellow will rise from 60% to 63% compared with the 2012 network. But yellow is not the new green. What’s more, yellow zones have similar management costs to green zones, which means that the government is proposing to spend the same amount of money for far inferior protection. And as any decent sex-ed teacher will tell you, partial protection is a risky business.

What do the draft plans mean?

Let’s take a couple of examples, starting with the Coral Sea Marine Park. This is perhaps the most disappointing rollback in the new draft plan. The green zone, which would have been one of the largest fully protected areas on the planet, has been reduced by half to allow for fishing activity in a significantly expanded yellow zone.

Coral Sea Marine Park zoning, as recommended by Independent Review (left) and in the new draft plan (right), showing the proposed expansion of partial protection (yellow) vs full protection (green).
From http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

This yellow zone would allow the use of pelagic longlines to fish for tuna. This is despite government statistics showing that around 30% of the catch in the Eastern Tuna and Billfish fishery consists of species that are either overexploited or uncertain in their sustainability, and the government’s own risk assessment that found these types of fishing lines are incompatible with conservation.

What this means, in effect, is that the plans to establish a world-class marine park in the Coral Sea will be significantly undermined for the sake of saving commercial tuna fishers A$4.1 million per year, or 0.3% of the total revenue from Australia’s wild-catch fisheries.

Contrast this with the A$6.4 billion generated by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 2015-16, the majority of which comes from non-extractive industries.

This same erosion of protection is also proposed in Western Australia, where the government’s draft plan would reduce green zones by 43% across the largest marine parks in the region.

Zoning for the Gascoyne Marine Park as recommended by the Independent Review (left) and the new draft plan (right).
http://www.environment.gov.au/marinereservesreview/reports and https://parksaustralia.gov.au/marine/management/draft-plans/

Again, this is despite clear evidence that the fishing activities occurring in these areas are not compatible with conservation. Such proposals also ignore future pressures such as deep-sea mining.

The overall effect is summarised neatly by Frydenberg’s statement that the government’s plans will:

…increase the total area of the reserves open to fishing from 64% to 80% … (and) make 97% of waters within 100 kilometres of the coast open for recreational fishing.

Building ocean resilience

Science shows that full protection creates resilience by supporting intact ecosystems. Fully protected green zones recover faster from flooding and coral bleaching, have reduced rates of disease, and fend off climate invaders more effectively than areas that are open to fishing.

Green zones also contribute indirectly to the blue economy. They help support fisheries and function as “nurseries” for fish larvae. For commercial fisheries, these sanctuaries are more important than ever in view of the declines in global catches since we hit “peak fish” in 1996.

Of course it is important to balance conservation with sustainable economic use of our oceans. Yet the government’s new draft plan leaves a huge majority of Australia’s waters open to business as usual. It’s a brave Emperor who thinks this will protect our oceans.

The ConversationSo let’s put some real clothes on the Emperor and create a network of marine protection that supports our blue economy and is backed by science.

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia and David Booth, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Technology Sydney

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

Changes to Australia’s marine reserves leave our oceans unprotected


Jessica Meeuwig, University of Western Australia; Craig Johnson, University of Tasmania; David Booth, University of Technology Sydney, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, The University of Queensland

Ocean health relies on a strong backbone of protection and management. Marine reserves can be part of the solution, but only if they’re constructed in the right way. Recent recommendations on Australia’s marine reserves would leave more ocean unprotected.

Marine reserves are a mix of multiple-use zones that allow activities such as mining and fishing, and highly-protected zones called marine national parks that are free of extractive activities. These marine national parks are the gold standard for protecting our oceans. Globally, less than 1% of the world’s oceans are fully protected in no-take marine national parks or their equivalents.

Australia is currently deciding how much of its ocean territory it will place in marine national parks and where. To this end, the government recently released its commissioned review of Australia’s Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network.

Such a review is welcome as Australia has yet to provide comprehensive, adequate and representative protection for its oceans. This is despite the general recognition within the Australian community that economic growth depends on a healthy and properly functioning environment.

Marine national parks play a fundamental role in contributing to ocean ecosystem function and provide a means to assess the health of areas outside of these zones that are open to greater use by humans.

This understanding of the interdependence of how we protect and sustainably use our oceans is, unfortunately, largely missing from the review’s recommendations.

The gold standard

In early 2016 the Ocean Science Council of Australia (OSCA) prepared a scientific analysis aimed at helping define what Australia’s marine reserves should deliver.

Based on hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and myriad international consensus statements from researchers on the need for strong ocean protection, the Council concluded that science-based decisions and actions should:

(1) Prevent fishing, mining and other extractive activities on at least 30% of each marine habitat, according to the international standard for ocean protection to deliver protection of both biodiversity and ecosystem services

(2) Improve representation of marine national parks in bioregions (regions of the ocean defined by particular species and climate) and key ecological features (such as the continental shelf and offshore reefs) that were already under-represented in the 2012 marine reserve plans

(3) Build and maintain large, contiguous, highly-protected marine national parks in regions such as the Coral Sea

(4) Quantify the benefits of Australia’s marine reserves so as to make their value to Australia clearer.

We need to monitor and study our ocean ecosystems to understand how they work.
David Booth, Author provided

What the review says

The government review reflects science and community concerns in some respects, recommending for instance that more bioregions have at least one marine national park. This review also recommends more protection for some important coral reefs and there is an expansion of protection from mining in some areas.

Most importantly, the review recognises the fundamental role of highly-protected marine national park zones in the conservation of species and ecosystems. As a corollary of this, the review also recognises that “partial protection” zones within reserves are primarily used to address narrow sector-based concerns such as fishing, and result in reduced conservation outcomes (as reviewed here and here).

It requires explanation therefore that the review mostly fails to recommend zoning changes consistent with its own findings on the science. In comparison with the 2013 recommended zoning, the review’s recommended zoning would:

(1) Remove a total of 127,000 square kilometres of marine national park from the overall network, an area 1.9 times the size of Tasmania, with a net loss of 76,000 sq km

(2) Reduce by 25% the contiguous Coral Sea marine national park

Changes to Coral Sea marine national park proposed by review. Map generated from shape files provided by the Department of the Environment.

(3) Demote 18 areas from marine national park zones to varying forms of partial protection

(4) Shift the location of some marine national parks from the continental shelf to offshore areas as a way of maintaining cover but further eroding representation and indeed reducing protection on the shelf where it is most needed.

Overall, the review’s recommendations would see only approximately 13% of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone protected in marine national parks. This falls well below the recommended international standard of at least 30% of habitats being under high protection, or indeed higher levels as recently determined.

Smoke and mirrors

The recommendations in the review are tainted by a feeling of smoke and mirrors. While some of the review’s authors suggest that their recommendations would increase protection, there would indeed be a net loss of highly-protected zones should these recommendations be adopted by the government.

Under the review’s recommendations, Australia would do a great job of protecting the deep water abyss, but achieve little to protect ocean wildlife on the continental shelf where human pressures are highest. This out-of-sight-out-of-mind approach does not address the principles of marine conservation and also departs from recommendations from the research community.

Australian marine national parks are too-often relegated to residual areas of relatively little conservation value simply because these areas are of little value to commercial interests.

The significant erosion of protection in the Coral Sea is further evidence of this failure. Much of the erosion of this important reserve reflects a shift from full protection to partial protection in order to open up more ocean to tuna fishing.

The 25% reduction in large marine national park would increase tuna catch and value by 8-10% across the fishery, worth a mere A$26,376 to individual tuna fishers. This recommendation fails both the science and the economic test.

Where to from here?

The changes recommended by the review in many cases appear to prioritise economic benefits, no matter how trivial, over conservation. This is despite conservation being the core reason behind the marine reserves.

This stands in stark contrast to international moves towards protection of large areas of the ocean as a response to ongoing declines in ocean health.

Key examples of such large-scale protection are US President Barack Obama’s recent expansion of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument over the North West Hawaiian Islands and New Zealand Prime Minister John Key’s declaration of the Kermadec Marine Sanctuary in New Zealand’s waters.

Australia still has a major opportunity to protect and secure its marine ecosystems and make a significant contribution to global ocean conservation. At the same time we can develop important economic activities such as fishing and mining. Large and well-managed areas are going to become more important, not less, as climate change intensifies.

This will require the federal government to acknowledge and build on the global body of science and create a backbone of representative marine national parks. This will include retention of the Coral Sea’s high level protection and resisting the temptation to shift of marine national parks offshore. At a time of great environmental change, these moves are not just important, but urgent.

This is a contribution from the Ocean Science Council of Australia.

The Conversation

Jessica Meeuwig, Professor & Director, Centre for Marine Futures, University of Western Australia; Craig Johnson, Professor, University of Tasmania; David Booth, Professor of Marine Ecology, University of Technology Sydney, and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Director, Global Change Institute, The University of Queensland

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

Marine parks and fishery management: what’s the best way to protect fish?


Caleb Gardner, University of Tasmania

The federal government is considering changes to Australia’s marine reserves to implement a national system. This week The Conversation is looking at the science behind marine reserves and how to protect our oceans.


While academics often focus on biodiversity objectives for marine parks, the public and political debate tends to come down to one thing: fishing.

When former federal MP Rob Oakeshott cast one of the deciding votes in support of the Commonwealth marine parks plan in 2013, he explained that he believed they benefit fisheries. The federal government has also emphasised the benefit of marine parks to fisheries production.

There’s also an academic debate. When a study showed that the Great Barrier Reef marine park had harmed fisheries production, there was a passionate response from other experts. This is despite advocates arguing that reserves are primarily about biodiversity conservation, rather than fishing production.

Clearly, fishing is a hot issue for marine parks. So what does the science say?

How do marine parks protect fish?

The proposed benefits to fisheries from marine parks include: protection or insurance against overfishing; “spillover”, where larvae or juveniles from the parks move out and increase the overall production; habitat protection from damaging fishing gear; and managing the ecosystem effects of fishing such as resilience against climate change.

Marine parks regulate activities, mainly fishing, within a specified area. They come in a variety of categories. Some allow fishing, but the most contentious are “no-take” marine parks.

Fishery managers also sometimes close areas of the ocean to fishing. This is different to how no-take marine parks work in two ways: the legislative authority is different (being through fisheries rather than environmental legislation); and the closures usually target a specific fishery, whereas no-take marine parks usually ban all fishing.

Fishery closures, rather than no-take marine parks, are usually applied to protect special areas for particular fish, such as spawning sites or nursery areas. They are also used to protect habitats, such as in the case of trawl closures, which allow the use of other gear such as longlines in the same location.

Fisheries legislation bans damaging fishing gear outright, while benign gears are allowed. In contrast, no-take marine parks tend to exclude all gear types.

Displacing fishers

Neither marine parks nor fishery closures regulate the amount of catch and fishing effort. They only control the location. Commercial fishers take most fish caught in Commonwealth waters and most of this is limited by catch quotas.

When a no-take marine park closes an area to fishing, fishers and their catch are displaced into other areas of the ocean. This occurs for all types of fishing, including recreational fishing. Recreational fishers displaced by marine parks don’t stop fishing, they just fish somewhere else – and the same number of fishers are squeezed into a smaller space.

Marine parks increase the intensity of fishing impacts across the wider coast, which is an uncomfortable outcome for marine park advocates. Modelling of Victorian marine parks showed that displaced catch would harm lobster stocks and associated ecosystems, and was counterproductive to their fishery management objective of rebuilding stock.

Because ecosystems don’t respond in predictable ways, depletion of fish stocks from the fishing displaced from marine parks could lead to severe ecosystem outcomes.

For this reason, a second and separate management change is often needed after marine parks are declared, which is to reduce the number of fishers and fish caught to prevent risk of impacts from the park.

Controlling how many fish are caught (which is what traditional fisheries management does) has substantially more influence on overall fish abundance than controlling where fish are caught with parks, as shown recently on the Great Barrier Reef.

Public cost

Commonwealth fisheries catch quotas are routinely reduced if a fishery harms the sustainability of the marine environment. There’s no compensation to fishers, so there’s no cost to the public, other than a possible reduced supply of fish.

Catches can also be reduced to manage fishing displaced by marine reserves and the outcome is identical except in terms of the public cost. Creation of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park led to over A$200 million in payments to displaced fishers. Another publicly funded package is planned for the Commonwealth marine reserves.

Marine parks also have high recurring public cost because boundaries need to be policed at sea. Catch quotas can be policed at the wharf, with compliance costs fully recovered from industry.

Do marine parks help fish and fishers?

Evidence of a benefit to fisheries from marine parks is scarce. However, there are some clear examples of fishing displacement that is so minor that there has been an overall increase in fish inside and outside the park.

These examples show that marine parks can sometimes benefit fish stocks, the fishery and also the overall marine ecosystem. However, these examples come from situations where traditional fishery management has not been applied to prevent overfishing.

This is consistent with modelling of marine parks that shows they only increase overall fish populations when there has been severe overfishing. This generally means that if there’s already effective traditional fisheries management, marine reserves cannot benefit fish stocks and fisheries, or restock fish outside the reserve (spillover) (see also here).

In jurisdictions where fisheries management is lacking, any regulation, including through marine reserves, is better than nothing. But this isn’t the situation with Australia’s Commonwealth fisheries where harvest strategies are used and overfishing has been eliminated.

The conclusions from modelling of marine reserves mean that the areas of the reserves that limit fishing would be expected to reduce fishery production and harm our ability to contribute to global food security.

The Coral Sea marine reserve, in particular, represents an area with known large stocks of fish, especially tuna, that could be harvested sustainably. Limiting fishing in the Coral Sea eliminates any potential for these resources to help feed Australians or contribute to global food supplies.

The potential sustainable, ecologically acceptable harvest from the Coral Sea is unknown, so we don’t know the full scale of what’s being lost and how much the recent changes reduce this problem, although Papua New Guinea sustainably harvests 150,000-300,000 tonnes of tuna in its part of the sea.

Allowing fishing doesn’t mean the oceans aren’t protected. Existing fisheries management is already obliged to ensure fishing doesn’t affect sustainability of the marine environment.

The Conversation

Caleb Gardner, Principal Research Fellow, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania

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

The story behind Australia’s marine reserves, and how we should change them


Colin Buxton, University of Tasmania and Peter Cochrane, Australian National University

The federal government is considering changes to Australia’s marine reserves to implement a national system. This week The Conversation is looking at the science behind marine reserves and how to protect our oceans.


Australia has the third largest marine jurisdiction in the world, a vast ocean territory that contains important natural and biological resources. The oceans separate us from, and connect us to, the rest of the world.

They supply food, play a significant role in determining our climate, and are fundamental to our national identity. Protecting our oceans is of paramount importance and Australia is signatory to several international agreements and conventions to establish a network of marine reserves aimed at looking after marine resources.

In 2012 the Australian government declared a network of marine reserves to conserve our marine environment. In 2014, we were asked to co-chair a review of the reserves, with the results released this September.

We looked at five marine regions (North, North-West, South-West, Temperate East and the Coral Sea) but not the South-East network which had been established in 2007. Of the 40 reserves administered by the commonwealth government, we recommended changes to 26.

Click on the marine reserve regions in the map below to details of the changes proposed.

https://c311ba9548948e593297-96809452408ef41d0e4fdd00d5a5d157.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/2016-09-30-marine-reserves/v2/marine-reserves-v2.html

The review was established to address stakeholder concerns about how the reserves were zoned – and what activities were allowed in each zone – as well as ensuring that zoning decisions were informed by the best available science.

One of the strong messages we received was that people were tired of the process – having been asked about the same concerns when the reserves were declared. But the opportunity to raise concerns and suggest solutions was quickly taken up.

We held more than 260 meetings with more than 650 people between February and August 2015, considered 13,124 written submissions, the vast majority from individuals, and received 1,859 responses to an online survey.

What has changed?

The primary goal of the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas (NRSMPA) is to create a system of reserves that is comprehensive (includes the full range of ecosystems within and across each bioregion), adequate (ensures ecological viability and the integrity of populations, species and communities) and representative (reasonably reflects the biodiversity of the marine ecosystem). This will ensure our marine ecosystems stay healthy for generations to come.

Zoning allows us to regulate activities within marine reserves without detracting from their conservation value. These zones range from no-take, which doesn’t allow any resource extraction (such as fishing or mining), through to multiple use and special purpose zones, where certain uses are, or may be, allowed, subject to an assessment of their potential impacts.

https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/vNqTu/1/

We made seven major recommendations:

• Put more conservation features such as seafloor types, canyons, reef, slope and shelf in no-take protection (from 331 to 352 of the 509 primary conservation features recognised in the reserves).

• Increase the area of no-take zones in four regions, but reduce the area of no-take zone to 41% of the Coral Sea. This means the overall proportion of no-take across the 40 reserves drops marginally from 36% to 33% – the same level as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

• An 81% increase in the area zoned as Habitat Protection Zone (HPZ) – an additional 450,000 square kilometres – rising from 24% to 43% of the estate; and add more conservation features in the HPZ – (from 192 to 272 of the 509 conservation features).

• A 27% increase to just over three quarters (76%) of the overall area of the estate receiving a high level of protection under Sanctuary Zone, Marine National Park Zone or Habitat Protection Zone; all these zones prohibit activities such as seabed mining and fishing that damages the seafloor.

• The total area zoned as Multiple Use Zone is halved, from 36% to 18% of the estate.

• Protection for the coral reefs in the Coral Sea is improved (three additional reefs – Holmes, South Flinders and Wreck – zoned as national park, and all 34 reefs zoned as sanctuary, national park, or habitat protection, and notably improving protection of the reefs of the Marion Plateau).

• Our proposed zoning in the Coral Sea to decrease national park zones and increase habitat protection more strongly reflects zoning in the adjacent Great Barrier Reef, effectively increasing the area of GBR green zones.

Clearly these changes do not support claims that the recommendations will “trigger a devastating loss of threatened marine life”. Nor do they represent “huge cutbacks to marine hotspots”, or “expanded mining”.

On the contrary, they represent a significant improvement to biodiversity included in no-take and other highly protected zones, and better conservation of key features such as southern coral reefs of the Coral Sea.

Who will this affect?

Commonwealth waters, starting at 3 nautical miles (about 5.5 km) from the coast, are generally beyond the safe reach of most recreational fishers and the direct influence of coastal communities.

Nonetheless, there were some areas of particular significance to the recreational fishing, charter fishing and dive tourism sectors such as the Perth Canyon and the Coral Sea, which were adversely affected by the reserves’ proclamation in 2012. The review recommendations accommodated almost all of these concerns through local solutions developed in close consultation with users and their representatives.

The guiding principles of the marine reserves include that zones are based on specific activities, and socioeconomic costs should be minimised.

We were particularly mindful of the socioeconomic importance of fisheries, especially to regional communities. Australia has been globally acknowledged for its management of fisheries. For instance, we recognised Marine Stewardship Certification (MSC) of tuna longlining in the Coral Sea and the Northern Prawn Fishery in our consideration of these two valuable fisheries.

We assessed the risk that certain fishing methods such prawn trawling, longlining and midwater trawling posed to marine habitats using the most up-to-date scientific information and understanding. Along with historical catch records, we used these to develop recommendations on zoning in the marine reserves.

For commercial fisheries that operate in Commonwealth waters, we consulted with users and industry peak bodies and found solutions that reduced impacts on these fisheries while improving the protection of conservation features. The outcome is that displacement of commercial fishing, and therefore adjustment cost to taxpayers (if any) is lower.

Due to the importance of energy security, the original reserve network design was constrained by largely avoiding areas of oil and gas prospects and leases. Where marine reserves and prospects co-exist the zoning is generally multiple use.

The review recommended several departures from this constraint. Much of the Bremer reserve in WA, an area where large fish, mammals and seabirds are known to aggregate, is proposed as a no-take national park, despite high petroleum prospects. Similarly, we recommended that mining and exploration activities be excluded from Geographe Bay.

In the North we proposed more protection in several reserves by extending areas under habitat protection and national park where prospects are low. We also recommended a significant extension of national park at the head of the Great Australian Bight, a well-known site where whales gather.

By-and-large the ports and shipping sectors are not affected by marine reserves. Safe passage of ships is guaranteed under the law of the sea. However, we proposed changes to the Dampier marine reserve to include a Special Purpose Zone for an area where there is existing high intensity port and shipping activity.

Finally, Indigenous groups and representatives also participated in the review. We recommended that Indigenous communities should be encouraged to explore future socioeconomic opportunities from activities in reserves in or near traditional sea country. These activities could include Indigenous rangers monitoring and managing marine reserves.

Where to from here?

We believe the review struck a considered, science-based and robust balance of marine user interests, while improving the protection of key conservation features. Its recommendations address almost all of the major areas of contention raised during the review.

There is no loss of area under conservation management (reserve outer boundaries are unchanged), more of the estate is more highly protected, yet the displacement of commercial fisheries has been reduced through careful zone adjustments.

The review provides a strong foundation for future generations to benefit from the conservation, appreciation and sustainable use of the marine reserves – as long as it is effectively managed and adequately resourced.

The Conversation

Colin Buxton, Adjunct Professor, Fisheries Aquaculture and Coasts Centre IMAS, University of Tasmania and Peter Cochrane, Adjunct Fellow Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University

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

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.