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Will Australian Environment Minister Burke deliver on marine protected areas?

November 11, 2010

Cross posted on 18th November 2010

The science of protection stacks up. The international community has spoken. Will Minister Burke deliver on marine protected areas?


Australian sealion (c)

A few weeks ago, the great and the good convened in Nagoya, Japan to deliberate the future of our planet. Perhaps a little melodramatic, but in many ways it’s the truth. This 10th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was every bit as important as the Climate Change meetings are. After all, the CBD itself is there to protect the genetic resources, ecosystems and species that we depend on for our quality of life and who share this planet with us. We need this protection to be sorted out, because we are devastating biodiversity at an alarming rate.

The compact that came from the meeting was long, and not surprisingly whittled into irrelevance by the incredible detail of negotiation that was applied to every word. The document is so precise, so exacting and limited in what it is prepared to say, it actually says very little. However, there are a few indicators of the direction the global community at least plans to go. One such directive is the new target for marine protected areas, that:

By 2020, at least … 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascapes. (CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity for the Period 2011-2020: Target 11)

This is particularly pertinent for Australia because we are in the midst of deciding the level of protection to be applied to a large section of our coastline and offshore areas. The south east declarations have been completed. Next is the southwest, from the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island to the waters off Shark Bay, then the northwest, the north and finally the east from the northern tip of Cape York to the New South Wales town of Bermagu.

We do this as a nation because pollution, over fishing, species entanglement in nets the destruction of important habitats, and the ecosystem devastation of oil spills are just some of the many threats to Australia’s remarkable marine life. If these threats continue unabated we risk joining the unprecedented global collapse of marine life where two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying and 90 per cent of the world’s large fish fisheries have been fished-out.

Today, scientists from the University of Queensland have released a comprehensive and deep study gathering the best available scientific data and applying world leading design principles to their recommendations. ‘Systematic Conservation Planning – A Network of Marine Sanctuaries for the South West Marine Region’ identifies that 50 per cent of the south west region will need to be protected in a network of marine sanctuaries if the marine life is to remain healthy. For clarity, sanctuaries are areas where extractive uses such as commercial fishing and oil and gas are not allowed. Currently, less than 1 per cent of the south west region is protected from these threats.

At the same time 44 of Australia’s leading marine and social scientists in support of marine protection have released a consensus statement – ‘Scientific Principles for Design of Marine Protected Areas in Australia’ – as  a peer-level guidance on the selection, design, and implementation of marine protected areas. They concur that significant protection is needed/

Earlier this month another study by the University of Queensland provided a damning assessment of the success of Australia’s national parks, marine parks and nature reserves that are failing to adequately protect more than 80 per cent of Australia’s threatened species. Their study detailed how the fundamental aim of securing species most at risk was not being achieved. Yet another recent study by the University of the Sunshine Coast revealed ancient, giant coral reefs found on Australia undersea mountains are being wiped out by trawling on the sea floor confirming the importance of maintaining and extending Australia’s marine protected areas.

Since moving to the Environment portfolio, Minister Tony Burke has said very little publically about the roll out of marine protected areas around the country. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that, in their previous term, Labor dithered on everything marine related except championing whale protection internationally. They inherited a well established, Coalition developed, marine planning process but failed to deliver anything on the water, eroding confidence and credibility. Combine this with the unfortunate and poorly informed Liberal and National ‘dog-fish whistles’ to fishers in tinnies during the election and recent history probably gives little confidence to the Minister in his new role.

None-the-less, the timelines still stand, and these decisions are important ones. Indications are that the Minister will make his first and crucial decision for the south west region soon. A huge variety of fish, sharks, whales and seals live in the south west submerged mountain ranges, deep sea canyons and both cool and tropical coral reefs. These waters provide refuge for the magnificent blue, humpback, and southern right whales, as well as bottlenose, spotted and striped dolphins. All these things matter, but perhaps what matters more is that the level of protection that Minister decides to apply will define the level of protection that will be applied to the rest of Australia’s waters for the next 10 to 20 years.

Tim Nicol from the Conservation Council of Western Australia has said today that “The federal government now has the scientific evidence it needs to confidently make important decisions about the future health of the oceans and marine life in Australia’s south west”.  Add to this the international consensus and the decision would appear to be a clear cut case. His confidence should be high. If the Minister chooses the side of science he invests in the future. He will also take the first steps towards the largest conservation contribution in Australian history, delivering the biggest network of marine protected areas in the world. If he doesn’t, it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity lost.

There has been considerable media debate about this issue, especially in the lead up to the Australian election. Are marine protected areas a fair and balanced approach? What do you think?

[** following Bruce’s comment yesterday, I have amended the original text to now reflect that I am saying 90 per cent of the world’s large fish fisheries have been fished-out, not that 90 per cent of the world’s large fish are gone]

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Jacinta Ray permalink*
    November 16, 2010 10:08 pm

    This is coming up right? I saw your message on twitter about the emails to the Minister. Seems unlikely he will make a brave decision, but maybe I am wrong.

  2. Bruce Macphee permalink
    November 17, 2010 7:47 pm

    Where is your evidence that 90 per cent of the world’s large fish have been fished-out? I am sick of reading this crap regurgitated over and over again! (Meyers and Worm 2003),Worm et al. (2005) the reports it comes from have been discredited in many scientific journals. the following link is a review of the lit used to propose the coral sea marine sanctuary zone. Check it out.
    This massive push to lock up vast areas of our seas from fishing in the hope this will allow marine biodiversity to flourish is just nuts.

  3. November 17, 2010 9:33 pm

    That’s a fair enough question Bruce, and with hindsight I can see that in an effort not to belabor the point, my sentence is fairly bleak.

    I draw my data from the FAO SOFI 2008 report (2010 is not yet released) which is at . Sadly, I am the kind of ‘tragic’ who reads these things from cover to cover … but for quick reference, in the summary FAO state that “Overall, 80 percent of the world fish stocks for which assessment information is available are reported as fully exploited or overexploited” Drilling further into SOFI 2008 and the fisheries data that FAO holds, you can add up to the large fish fisheries and they hit the 90% mark. Sure, I concede that Meyers and Worm’s data also says this.

    So my apologies for sloppy writing – I should have more accurately said 90% of the large fish fishery target species are gone.

    Not sure I agree with you that large scale MPAs can’t be helpful to the cause. Of course the balance has to be right, and professional fishers livelihoods need to be considered (displaced effort buy-out is key in this), but I can sprout plenty of evidence that they can be a great boon for everyone. I can even name a few fisheries (and professional fishers) that if they had their time again would do things differently, because the boom-bust situation that the Government quota system has imposed upon them has lead to practices they don’t like either.

    Please be assured. I am not anti-fishing. I am pro-future though, and I do think that Burke has a great opportunity right now.

    Thanks for your comment … its good to be kept honest!

  4. Bruce Macphee permalink
    November 18, 2010 9:13 pm

    Thanks for your reply Margi,

    I see the same article has been placed on Crikey, I have also placed this reply there.
    Thanks for the link I will read it with great interest when I get a chance.

    This is a very complex issue with many factors to consider I am sure you will agree.
    My and many other rec anglers main issue is the message being continually pushed to the general public is over simplified for what is a very complex issue.
    Lets put in marine parks and all will be well!

    From a rec anglers point of view constantly hearing doom and gloom and we must save and protect, from what?

    I will agree in other parts of the world, fisheries are not in a great state, however the latest report from ABARE 2009 presents a very different picture of our fisheries. This is afterall what we are talking about are we not Australia’s marine environment.
    Don’t get me wrong our fisheries are far from perfect, many of our commercial extraction methods are less than ideal, quota systems, licences and bycatch all placing greater pressure on some target and non target species.
    Here is a link to a great article that sums it up in my book.
    Faith, Conservation and Science
    by Bob Kearney Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra

    There is a distinct lack of local science and research, particularly as many of the environmental sites state, “many of our species are unique and only occur in one reigon” so how can research from the other side of the world be relavent. Why not do the science first and do it properly!

    Victoria in point, has no base data for the existing marine parks or new parks proposed by the VNPA and No research conducted on how effective the existing parks have been.
    Infact there is evidence to the contrary that some of the existing parks harbour many more introduced marine pests than areas outside the park.
    The proposed parks also do not address any of the real issues facing biodiversity such as pollution, runoff, introduced marine pests, etc. Just stop rec angling and all will be saved.
    No data means no science.

    So I say again, if we are going do something, lets do it properly and you will get the backing of everyone. after all we all want the same thing, what’s best for the future.


    Bruce Macphee

  5. November 18, 2010 10:51 pm

    Indeed we do Bruce! Thanks for the link will look at the tomorrow with a fresh head, and will get onto the small change on the Crikey post too (went in before this one went live).

    Thanks for reading 🙂

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