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Marine reserves not about closing fisheries, but about preserving ocean health

Recently, members of the fishing industry staged a protest about Australia’s new network of marine parks. But when Environment Minister Tony Burke announced the parks on July 11 2012, he noted the reserves…

The shrimp Lebbeus clarehanna is a new species collected at about 400 metres depth - it’s species like this new marine reserves will protect. CSIRO

Recently, members of the fishing industry staged a protest about Australia’s new network of marine parks. But when Environment Minister Tony Burke announced the parks on July 11 2012, he noted the reserves had been designed not to manage fisheries, but to help ensure the health and productivity of Australia’s oceans. The impact on the commercial fishing sector would be restricted to just above 1% of annual catch.

Marine closures enacted specifically for fisheries management can far exceed the extent of the marine reserves in the same area. And only 4% of Commonwealth waters within 100km offshore would be closed to recreational fishing. This is not to trivialise what will be larger impacts on a small number of individual operators or areas.

What the Commonwealth Marine Reserves (CMR) network is designed to do is:

  • protect areas of high conservation value
  • fulfil Australia’s international commitments for biodiversity protection
  • provide a science-based framework for well-audited, adaptive oceans management.

Fisheries restrict themselves more than marine parks do

The comparative lack of impact the CMR network will have on commercial fisheries contrasts with much larger closures enacted for fisheries management by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).

An Australian fur-seal (Arctocephalus-pusillus-dorsiferus) on the outer shelf off southern Tasmania at a depth of 123m. CSIRO

For example, in June 2007, the Commonwealth South-east Marine Reserve network was declared. It contained 12% of the area between 700 and 1000m depth (excluding Macquarie Island), with less than 1% in IUCN zones I or II (Sanctuary or Marine Park). Shortly after the reserve network was declared, AFMA closed this entire depth range to trawling. It wanted to control increasing fishing effort on the unknown - but potentially unproductive - stocks of the poorly known species at these depths. Some parts have since been reopened, and the AFMA fishery closure now covers 52% of this depth range.

AFMA has implemented permanent fishery closures around Australian sea lion colonies off South Australia. These have associated “trigger zones” that can be closed to shark gill-netting when maximum by-catch limits are reached. Three of the seven trigger zones (73,180km²) have recently been closed to gill-netting for 18 months. Conversely, gill-netting is prohibited in only 14,553 km² (25%) of the CMR in this area (and in depths mostly beyond 100m).

This raises the interesting situation in which AFMA regulated areas are more restrictive than the proposed CMR network general zoning guidelines for the same area.

By its size, zoning and design, the CMR network is clearly not designed to manage commercial fisheries, intentionally or by stealth. What then does it achieve?

Using science to set up protected areas

The different zones in the CMR network provide specific protection to a handful of specific areas with recognised high-conservation value around Australia. The protection constrains individual commercial fishing methods, recreational fishing, charter-boat fishing, aquaculture, and mining.

Specific areas protected include the deep sea seamounts off southern Tasmania, the Perth Canyon and of course the Coral Sea which, with the adjacent Great Barrier Reef Marine Protected Area, together create the largest marine reserve in the world. But more than this, the CMR network aims to provide a higher level of protection for a comprehensive set of areas around Australia that represents the major ecological systems.

Comprehensive (and representative) coverage of the major ecological systems was largely achieved by running the marine planning process in each of five established bioregional planning units around Australia, and by including the majority of biogeographical features identified through extensive scientific research that has been repeatedly reviewed and updated.

Table 1. Number of features included in proposed CMR network marine park zone (IUCN II), the CMR network as a whole, and the marine bioregional planning regions that contain the proposed CMR network.

I am too close to the analyses to provide an objective assessment. I can conclude, however, that representative coverage of the CMR network was largely achieved, although many ecologists would argue that the proportion in areas of highest protection is inadequate by itself for biodiversity conservation especially in shallower areas (see Table 2). The extensive scientific information upon which it is based reflects Australia’s mega-diverse marine environment. The science behind the CMR network, and marine bioregional planning in general, has been consistently and independently provided to Australian governments for at least 10 years. Claims that the CMR network is not based on science are either incorrect or misdirected.

But considering the CMR network (and especially only the highly protected areas) in isolation fails to recognise a key attribute of Australia’s CMR network: that it is only one component of marine bioregional planning.

Table 2. Percentage of the bioregional planning areas contained in the proposed and existing CMR network, by protection level (IUCN zone) and depth. All marine bioregions excluding the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Norfolk Island and Macquarie Island.

The CMR network has been developed under The Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). Under the EPBC Act, biodiversity within a reserve must be managed with a higher level of protection than outside. The network meets international agreements under the Convention on Biological Diversity to create a system of marine protected areas to assist in the conservation of biodiversity. It also meets the 1992 Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment in which all Australian governments agreed that a national system of protected areas should be developed.

The primary objective is biodiversity conservation. Sustainable use is a secondary objective. Importantly, the government will be required to audit and report on the progress of the CMR network against stated objectives (see page 5).

This will require a higher level of understanding of the values of marine biodiversity, the definition of performance targets (even if the target is no significant damage or change), and the development of a suitable monitoring framework.

A way to tell if marine conservation works

The CMR network provides a suite of representative scientific reference areas. When it is compared with areas outside the network, it will show whether, or to what extent, restricted access is helping to achieve biodiversity conversation objectives.

A rocky ledge with attached Gorgonian fans and sponges on the shelf-break west of King Island (depth 233m). CSIRO

What are the implications for reserve boundaries and zoning within the reserves if in 10 years time the first audit indicates that biodiversity objectives for the CMR network are not being achieved? What are the implications for sustainable fisheries management if the first audit shows significant biodiversity benefits from restricting gear types used within the multiple use areas of the CMR network? And more generally, what are the implications for management of areas outside the CMR network if the marine reserves themselves are found insufficient to achieve the stated objectives?

Answers to questions such as these in future audits will provide the information to adapt the CMR network and off-reserve management to improve the chances of meeting agreed objectives, including those of fisheries and other marine industries.

The CMR network and marine bioregional planning herald a substantial change in the way Australia manages its marine environment. The potential impacts extend well beyond fishery management.

Importantly the marine bioregional framework provides a clear and consistent framework for Australia that will help make future management decisions and help focus the social, economic and environmental research to support those decisions. It will set clear and measurable objectives within a clear reporting process. This will provide the impetus and direction for science to reduce the uncertainty about whether we are achieving those objectives and the broader goals they serve.

Australia provides world leadership in the policy and science of marine ecosystem management and is likely to be one of the few countries to achieve the international commitment made at Rio+10 in 2002 to develop a representative system of marine reserves by 2012.