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Australia’s new marine protected areas: why they won’t work

On land and in the sea, we’re losing sight of what nature conservation is about. We’ve become dangerously focused on protected areas, but rarely consider what they’re supposed to achieve. One result is…

Australia’s marine parks are all show, no substance, so why are conservation groups so supportive? AAP Image/Dean Lewins

On land and in the sea, we’re losing sight of what nature conservation is about. We’ve become dangerously focused on protected areas, but rarely consider what they’re supposed to achieve. One result is that biodiversity is declining almost everywhere while protected areas expand.

Why the apparent paradox? An important reason is that protected areas tend to be in the wrong places. On land, it’s a safe generalisation that protected areas are biased to “residual” places - those with least promise for commercial uses. In some regions, this is because only residual landscapes survive in anything like their natural state.

But another important factor is political pragmatism. Electorates in many countries like the idea of nature conservation but are undiscerning about exactly what this means. Governments can therefore present residual protected areas - and the more extensive the better - as real progress for conservation. The incentive for residual conservation is to minimise financial and political cost.

As systems of marine protected areas expand, their residual nature is becoming obvious too. One of the world’s best examples of a residual system of marine protected areas was announced in November 2012 by the Australian Government.

Why would residual protected areas be a problem? Most importantly, they contribute little to the real goals of nature conservation: to avert threats and avoid loss of biodiversity. They tend toward parts of jurisdictions that were de facto protected by remoteness and unsuitability for commercial uses. Meanwhile, the processes that threaten biodiversity continue largely unabated and declines in biodiversity continue.

Second, by giving a false impression of conservation progress, residual protected areas use up societies’ tolerances of protection, progressively making future protected areas, especially those that might be effective in averting threats, more difficult to establish.

Third, residual protected areas place the onus of real conservation on off-reserve measures. These vary greatly in effectiveness and many can be diluted, ignored, or removed at political or administrative whim.

These problems mean that measuring conservation progress in terms of the extent of protected areas is usually meaningless. Another implication is that residual protected areas can produce outcomes that are worse than neutral. By failing to avert present or impending threats while pre-empting later protected areas that could be more effective, their contribution can be irretrievably negative.

With those points in mind, here is a brief review of the recently established marine protected areas in Australian Commonwealth waters, covering more than 2.3 million square kilometres. The government considers these areas have confirmed Australia as a world leader in environmental protection. But how much difference did the new marine reserves make to the future of Australia’s marine biodiversity?

  • The green (no-take) zones are concentrated in the deeper waters near the edge of Australia’s marine jurisdiction, barely touching the continental shelf where threats to biodiversity are concentrated. Their placement has been adjusted to make little difference to fishing and no difference to oil and gas development. This repeats the pattern of the 2007 marine protected areas in the south-east region where marine protected areas, and especially green zones, were largely absent from the “zone of importance” where high biodiversity conservation values overlapped with greatest threats.

  • The extensive new protected areas in IUCN category IV and, especially, VI zones allow various forms of fishing and many allow extraction of oil and gas. Australia’s 2011 State of Environment report found that fishing has caused declines in target and non-target species in several of our marine planning regions and that the cumulative impacts of oil and gas extraction are not being managed.

  • The “jewel in the crown” of the new network is the enormous mosaic of protection zones in the Coral Sea – nationally marginal for commercial fishing . The no-take zone is furthest from land, typical of the other marine planning regions. The zones that prohibit pelagic long-lining have been configured to avoid all but the most marginal areas for this fishing method. Oil and gas exploration and extraction are prohibited throughout the region, although hydrocarbon reserves appear to be absent (they are concentrated in the north-west and south-east planning regions where oil and gas developments are avoided by or permitted in protected areas established in 2007 and 2012).

The Australian Government, in minimising the impact of marine protected areas on commercial and industrial interests, has also minimised the contributions of these areas to protecting marine biodiversity. The conservation benefits are vanishingly small in proportion to size of the new areas.

This approach works politically as long as conservation groups and the general public believe that size matters. Apparently they do. The Government’s media release stated: “Of the 80,000 submissions received, the vast majority of submissions were supportive of the Government’s plan to create the world’s largest network of marine parks.” The Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace, among many others, applauded the announcement.

This praise indicates one of two things: the green groups have confused means (protected areas) and ends (making a difference) or, for reasons of their own, have decided to follow the Government’s lead. Either way, Australia’s marine biodiversity faces a problem – a mutually reinforcing combination of political expediency and commendation from influential NGOs and the public.

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tales comes readily to mind. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Australia’s new marine protected areas don’t involve much substance but have attracted a good deal of public praise. An important difference, though, is that Andersen’s story ends with public outcry at being duped. There are plenty of people in Australia who understand marine conservation and think the new marine reserves are a conservation failure, but few can say so publicly. That’s another story.

Australia’s world leadership in marine conservation was rightly recognised in 1975 and 2004 with the establishment and extensive rezoning, respectively, of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The 2007 and now the 2012 Commonwealth marine protected areas are a big step backward from the 2004 milestone.

Regaining world leadership in marine conservation needs two things. We must judge progress by moving from meaningless counts of square kilometres to measuring what actually counts – avoided loss or averted threats (the methods are there and ready to use). And we must have the courage to accept and apply the apparently radical idea that marine conservation is about making a difference, not about placing protected areas where they will be least inconvenient to business as usual.