Sea change on the horizon 1

by Karen Thorne

The Coral Sea is part of five proposed marine parks in Commonwealth waters around Australia. Photo: Philip Morton

Almost 500,000 people have responded to the Federal Government’s marine park draft for the Coral Sea, and 99.9 per cent of submissions are calling for greater protection than the draft proposes.

Daisy Barham of the Australian Marine Conservation Society says, “The draft plan failed to provide a high level of protection for over 90 per cent of the area’s coral reefs. Under the draft, the Coral Sea would risk being slowly and steadily degraded, leaving huge schools of fish, sharks, sea turtles and seabirds with an uncertain future.”

Tony Burke, Federal Environment Minister, will deliver the landmark decision on the future of Australia’s marine life in coming months.

“Without overstating it, this is a historical moment for Australia and for its marine environment,” says Paul Gamblin, director of the World Wildlife Fund. “Nothing on this scale has ever been attempted before. We are almost at the finish line and we are imploring government to take this opportunity to deliver.”

The Coral Sea is part of five proposed marine parks in Commonwealth waters around Australia. The parks will begin at the edge of state or territory water three nautical miles off the coast and extend to Australia’s exclusive economic zone, around 200 nautical miles from the shore. Marine parks are protected areas of the ocean that restrict certain activities in order to preserve habitat and wildlife. Currently marine reserves only cover 11 per cent of Australia’s waters.

The marine parks will be zoned with areas that vary in protection from general use, to highly protected areas. The highest level will be the sanctuary zones. Oil and gas exploration and fishing will be prohibited in sanctuary zones.

“We see sanctuary zones as an essential backbone; they don’t allow most activity but they do allow for tourism. For us, sanctuary zones are crucial and are the toughest things to achieve, but they’re the areas that we focus on,” Mr Gamblin says.

Marine scientists at the Australian Research Council (ARC) agree that the current Coral Sea draft plan is inadequate. They are calling for the world’s largest ‘no take’ zone. Similar to a national park on land, the ‘no take’ zones allow no extractive industries. However, they do allow for non-extractive activities like snorkeling, boating and diving.

“The Coral Sea is one of the last few places on the planet where marine ecosystems are virtually pristine. The Australian Government has an opportunity to declare it as the world’s largest no-take reserve, with minimal economic cost. By compensating a handful of commercial fishers, they could set a global standard in marine conservation and management,” says Professor Terry Hughes, of ARC.

However, not everyone agrees. The Queensland Seafood Industry (QSI) says banning fishing in the marine park will shut down the long-line fishery in Queensland, and will result in less availability of locally fished seafood. It says this will result in increased seafood imports from regions, without the same standard of quality in fisheries.

“It appears highly likely much of the Coral Sea will exclude commercial fishing and for no reason other than green environmental pressure and a legacy for the Environmental Minister. This is bad policy all round and we will feel the inevitable consequences through less local seafood available to Australians,” says Winston Harris, Chief Executive Officer of the Queensland Seafood Industry.

Senator Richard Colbeck, the Coalition spokesman for Fisheries, agrees. “We need to recognise and utilise the strength of all the systems that we have in place, like our globally-recognised fisheries management, to look after waters of our exclusive economic zone,” he says.

“The suggestion that many species will be protected by such proposed lock-up measures just doesn’t stack up, particularly pelagic species which move in and out of the region and are therefore subject to fishing in other territorial waters.”

Protect Our Coral Sea, an organisation consisting of 15 environmental groups, has been campaigning for further protection of the Coral Sea for three years. Imogen Zethoven, of the Pew Environment Group, says, “We believe the protection of the iconic Coral Sea is one of the most highly supported environment issues in Australian history. The huge number of submissions calling for a higher level of protection is a real testament to the outstanding beauty of the Coral Sea and its extraordinary marine life. It also demonstrates the passion Australians feel for our oceans.”

Once the Australian Government has made its final decision on the marine parks, people will be able to submit feedback on each park at two consultation periods. The marine parks will then be proclaimed under Australia’s environmental law.


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