More than 70% of recreational fishers support no-take marine sanctuaries according to our research, published recently in Marine Policy.
This study contradicts the popular perception that fishers are against establishing no-take marine reserves to protect marine life. In fact, the vast majority of fishers we surveyed agreed that no-take sanctuaries improve marine environmental values, and do not impair their fishing.
No-take marine sanctuaries, which ban taking or disturbing any marine life, are widely recognised as vital for conservation. However, recent media coverage and policy decisions in Australia suggest recreational fishers are opposed to no-take sanctuary zones created within marine parks.
This perceived opposition has been reinforced by recreational fishing interest groups who aim to represent fishers’ opinions in policy decisions. However, it was unclear whether the opinions expressed by these groups matches those of fishers on-the-ground in established marine parks.
To answer this, we visited ten state-managed marine parks across Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales. We spoke to 778 fishers at boat ramps that were launching or retrieving their boats to investigate their attitudes towards no-take sanctuary zones.
Our findings debunk the myth that recreational fishers oppose marine sanctuaries. We found 72% of active recreational fishers in established marine parks (more than 10 years old) support their no-take marine sanctuaries. Only 9% were opposed, and the remainder were neutral.
We also found that support rapidly increases (and opposition rapidly decreases) after no-take marine sanctuaries are established, suggesting that once fishers have a chance to experience sanctuaries, they come to support them.
Fishers in established marine parks were also overwhelmingly positive towards marine sanctuaries. Most thought no-take marine sanctuaries benefited the marine environment (78%) and have no negative impacts on their fishing (73%).
We argue that recreational fishers, much like other Australians, support no-take marine sanctuaries because of the perceived environmental benefits they provide. This is perhaps not surprising, considering that appreciating nature is one of the primary reasons many people go fishing in the first place.
Our findings suggest that these policy decisions do not reflect the beliefs of the wider recreational fishing community, but instead represent the loud voices of a minority.
We suggest that recreational fishing groups and policy makers should survey grass roots recreational fishing communities (and other people who use marine parks) to gauge the true level of support for no-take marine sanctuaries, before any decisions are made.
Despite what headlines may say, no-take marine sanctuaries are unlikely to face long lasting opposition from recreational fishers. Instead, our research suggests no-take marine sanctuaries provide a win-win: protecting marine life whilst fostering long term support within the recreational fishing community.
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.
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.
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.
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).
(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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
• 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.