The Australian federal government’s draft marine parks plan is set to slash protected marine areas.
The plans propose that large areas of Queensland’s Coral Sea, as well as off the coast of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and New South Wales, will lose or have their protection downgraded, to make way for expanded long-line fishing and seafloor trawling – which have been shown to damage the conservation value of the oceans.
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”. However there is strong evidence to the contrary.
For example, in the Coral Sea Marine Park, 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.
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.
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.
The director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia, Jessica Meeuwig, said the plans broke a government promise to make the changes evidence-based.
“The proposed protection zones for the Coral sea ignores all the science about what is needed to ensure we have healthy oceans and also ignores the government’s own risk assessments on what activities are compatible with conservation,” Meeuwig said.
“We have to get away from saying that everything in the ocean is open for exploitation because a risk hasn’t been demonstrated.”
The director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, Darren Kindleysides, agreed. “All Australians will be justifiably distressed to know that science evidence supporting an increase in protections for marine life has been thrown out the window,” he said.
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.