Marine parks: cause for optimism, but devilish details

Hard numbers: less than 1% of the world’s oceans are protected but marine scientists think 20% should be off-limits to fishing. AAP/Lloyd Jones

As a marine scientist, I welcome Senator Burke’s brave decision today to roll out Australia’s marine park system. This puts us on a par with other leading nations like the US and UK who have established large ocean reserves within their jurisdiction. A major element is that the parks are to be formalised all around Australia, not just in iconic places like the coral reefs of the north-east.

Despite anti-park lobbying, parks are vital in protecting marine biodiversity against the ravages of overfishing. There is clear world evidence that parks are effective, just as there is strong evidence that overfishing is a major destructive force facing marine biodiversity, yet less than 1% of oceans are off-limits to fishing. World scientific opinion is that more than 20% of the oceans need to be fully protected from fishing.

However, with marine park zoning the devil is in the details. While regions of high conservation concern have been covered, only a small fraction of the parks are at the highest level of protection (dubbed “Marine National Park Zone”). These are no-take areas where fishing is prohibited. Elsewhere in the parks, in over 80% of their area, fishing can continue.

Particular parks deserve comment

The Coral Sea Park is huge and significant, but no-take zones are restricted to its eastern half, with fishing allowed along the entire western half of that park (where recreational fishing is likely to be concentrated). For instance, in the southern region, complexes such as Wreck Reefs support impressive coral reefs and have high historical significance (the wrecks of the Matthew Flinders expedition abut the reefs) but are afforded the lowest level of protection.

The Central-Eastern Park harbours a unique string of seamounts that thrusts upwards from the deep ocean to shallower than 2000m, and span 4 degrees of latitude - only one seamount complex here has been offered full protection from fishing, despite CSIRO studies revealing important biodiversity! In addition, inshore zones are extensions of current State-based Parks such as Jervis Bay and Solitaries in NSW. While important (fish don’t recognize state/federal jurisdictional boundaries) in both cases the Commonwealth zoning allows fishing extraction.

The South-West and South-East Parks have high protection no-take zones that span the coast outward to the Park edge, which affords cross-shelf dispersal of key organisms and both shallow and deeper-water assemblage protection.

The North network covers Australia’s top-end where consideration must be given to balancing the needs of commercial fishing, as well as jurisdictional boundary issues with Indonesia. However, the very small (10% of the Park area) fully-protected Marine National Park zone is inadequate, especially given high by-catch from prawn fisheries in the region.

One issue that has been raised is the proximity of oil and gas leases to the new Marine Parks. This is of concern and needs to be properly managed to ensure parks are protected. However, it also represents an opportunity for partnerships with these industries to support both park management (costs of adequate enforcement will be a vital issue across the huge expanses of ocean) and research programs that increase our understanding of marine processes relevant to park design and effectiveness.

Comments welcome below.