The release of the Coral Sea Commonwealth marine reserve proposal is a milestone achievement in marine protection.
The area proposed to be covered is larger than that of many small European nations. In fact, if it comes to fruition, it will be one of the largest marine parks on the planet.
But there is a caveat here: more than half of the marine reserve is not afforded full protection, with recreational fishing and some forms of commercial fishing to continue unabated. This is clearly a compromise to appease the recreational fishing lobby and to maintain some commercial fisheries.
It is well supported scientifically that fisheries extraction is a major threat to world fish populations. The selective removal of top predators — such as sharks, gropers and mackerels — may also indirectly affect whole ecosystems, so fishing needs to be managed closely.
In addition, while it is commendable that the fully protected “Marine National Park Zone” spans a huge range of latitudes, it has been relegated to the easternmost side of the reserve.
This means a huge swag of ocean adjacent to the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and ocean containing critical spawning sites for black marlin, is poorly protected from key extractive threats.
Many marine organisms travel through zones and these “pathways of connectivity” mean the zoning of one region can affect the conservation performance of adjacent zones, even if the latter zone is fully protected.
In 2009 I travelled to the Wreck Reefs in the southern section of the proposed new Coral Sea Marine Reserve. Under the proposal, this entire region would be a “multiple use zone” allowing many forms of recreational and commercial fishing.
I found Wreck Reefs to be in excellent condition — a pristine paradise of corals and associated fishes and invertebrates. In addition, the cays (sandy islands) supported abundant seabirds, and are of historical significance.
While fish life at the Wreck Reefs was plentiful at the time of my visit, populations of reef predators — such as gropers, snappers and mackerels — seemed depleted. I noted at the time that:
“It is likely that fishing pressure (charters mainly), coupled with isolation (reducing connectivity with other fish populations, and so lowering replenishment potential) are to blame, which is a sobering reminder that human influence extends into apparently pristine locations”.
The Commonwealth consultation paper suggests the Wreck reefs are “shallow reef systems” that are “remote and relatively pristine”. I would argue these reefs may already have been negatively affected by human exploitation.
Such isolated reefs probably have reduced linkages to sources of larvae on the Great Barrier Reef, and might therefore be more vulnerable to human interference and likely to recover more slowly.
Therefore, while I consider the Coral Sea Commonwealth marine reserve proposal to be a great step forward in marine biodiversity conservation, I would have preferred a higher level of protection in western and southern regions.
Rigorous monitoring of the performance of the new reserve will also be critical in evaluating its effectiveness. This won’t be a cheap exercise, given the isolation of the region, and at this stage, it’s unclear what resources and committment will be allocated to this task.
The Commonwealth marine reserve proposal for the Coral Sea has been released for public consultation. For more information about the proposal, visit the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities website.