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.

Oil, gas and marine parks really can coexist in our oceans – here’s how


Cordelia Moore, Curtin University; Ben Radford, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Clay Bryce; Hugh Possingham, The University of Queensland; Oliver Berry, CSIRO, and Romola Stewart

When it comes to conserving the world’s oceans, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Globally, there has been an increasing trend towards placing very large marine reserves in remote regions. While these reserves help to meet some conservation targets, we don’t know if they are achieving their ultimate goal of protecting the diversity of life.

In 2002, the Convention on Biological Diversity called for at least 10% of each of the world’s land and marine habitats to be effectively conserved by 2010. Protected areas currently cover 14% of the land, but less than 3.4% of the marine environment.

Australia’s marine reserve system covers more than a third of our oceans. This system was based on the best available information and a commitment to minimising the effects of the new protected areas on existing users. However, since its release the system has been strongly criticised for doing little to protect biodiversity, and it is currently under review.

In a new study published in Scientific Reports, we looked at the current and proposed marine reserves off northwest Australia – an area that is also home to significant oil and gas resources. Our findings show how conservation objectives could be met more efficiently. Using technical advances, including the latest spatial modelling software, we were able to fill major gaps in biodiversity representation, with minimal losses to industry.

A delicate balance

Australia’s northwest supports important habitats such as mangrove forests, seagrass beds, coral reefs and sponge gardens. These environments support exceptionally diverse marine communities and provide important habitat for many vulnerable and threatened species, including dugongs, turtles and whale sharks.

This region also supports valuable industrial resources, including the majority of Australia’s conventional gas reserves.

A 2013 global analysis found that regions featuring both high numbers of species and large fossil fuel reserves have the greatest need for industry regulation, monitoring and conservation.

Proposed and existing state and Commonwealth marine reserves in northwest Australia shown in relation to petroleum leases.
Cordelia Moore

Conservation opportunitites

Not all protected areas contribute equally to conserving species and habitats. The level of protection can range from no-take zones (which usually don’t allow any human exploitation), to areas allowing different types and levels of activities such tourism, fishing and petroleum and mineral extraction.

A recent review of 87 marine reserves across the globe revealed that no-take areas, when well enforced, old, large and isolated, provided the greatest benefits for species and habitats. It is estimated that no-take areas cover less than 0.3% of the world’s oceans.

In Australia’s northwest, no-take zones cover 10.2% of the area, which is excellent by world standards in terms of size. However, an analysis of gaps in the network reveal opportunities to better meet the Convention on Biological Diversity’s recommended minimum target level of representation across all species and features of conservation interest.

We provided the most comprehensive description of the species present across the region enabling us to examine how well local species are represented within the current marine reserves. Of the 674 species examined, 98.2% had less than 10% of their habitat included within the no-take areas, while more than a third of these (227 species) had less than 2% of their habitat included.

Into the abyss

Few industries in this region operate in depths greater than 200 metres. Therefore, the habitats and biodiversity most at risk are those exposed to human activity on the continental shelf, at these shallower depths.

However, the research also found that three-quarters of the no-take marine reserves are sited over a deep abyssal plain and continental rise within the Argo-Rowley Terrace (3,000-6,000m deep). These habitats are unnecessarily over-represented (85% of the abyss is protected), as their remoteness and extreme depth make them logistically and financially unattractive for petroleum or mineral extraction anyway.

The majority of the no-take marine reserves lie over a deep abyssal plain.
Cordelia Moore

Proposed multiple-use zones in Commonwealth waters provide some much-needed extra representation of the continental shelf (0-200m depth). However, all mining activities and most commercial fishing activities are permissible pending approval. This means that the management of these multiple-use zones will require some serious consideration to ensure they are effective.

A win for conservation and industry

An imbalance in marine reserve representation can be driven by governments wanting to minimise socio-economic costs. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Our research has shown that better zoning options can maximise the number of species while still keeping losses to industry very low. Our results show that the 10% biodiversity conservation targets could be met with estimated losses of only 4.9% of area valuable to the petroleum industry and 7.2% loss to the fishing industry (in terms of total catch in kg).

Examples of how the no-take reserves could be extended or redesigned to represent the region’s unique species and habitats.
Cordelia Moore

Management plans for the Commonwealth marine reserves are under review and changes that deliver win-win outcomes, like the ones we have found, should be considered.

We have shown how no-take areas in northwest Australia could either be extended or redesigned to ensure the region’s biodiversity is adequately represented. The cost-benefit analysis used is flexible and provides several alternative reserve designs. This allows for open and transparent discussions to ensure we find the best balance between conservation and industry.

The Conversation

Cordelia Moore, Research Associate, Curtin University; Ben Radford, Research scientist, Australian Institute of Marine Science; Clay Bryce, Senior Project Manager; Hugh Possingham, Director ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions, The University of Queensland; Oliver Berry, Senior Research Scientist, CSIRO, and Romola Stewart, Adjunct Research Fellow, The University of Queensland

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

Australia: Marine Reserves and the Future


The link below is to an article that comments on Australia’s excellent marine reserve proposal.

For more visit:
http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/opinion/marine-reserves-are-a-solid-anchor-for-all-ocean-life/story-e6frezz0-1226404692927

Article: Sea Shepherd Offer to Protect Coral Sea


The link below is to an article reporting on the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s offer to assist Australia in protecting the Coral Sea.

For more visit:
http://www.cqnews.com.au/story/2012/06/18/sea-shepherd-coral-sea-protectors/

Article: Australia Creates World’s Largest Marine Reserve Network


The link below is to another article covering Australia’s plan to protect large areas of our coastline with a Marine Park network.

For more visit:
http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/science/2012/06/australia-creates-worlds-largest-marine-reserve-network/

Article: Australia’s Marine Park Network


The link below is to an article reporting on Australia’s amazing new network of marine parks.

For more visit:
http://www.acfonline.org.au/news-media/news-features/world-first-national-ocean-protection

Article: Australia – Marine Protected Areas


The following link is to an article about Australia’s Marine Protected Areas.

For more visit:
http://www.wwf.org.au/our_work/saving_the_natural_world/oceans_and_marine/marine_solutions/protected_areas/