This thing called life

Protecting fish from fishing is good news, even for fishers

Kyle Kim
Bill Higham

The Australian government today has announced a series of marine reserves that will make Australia a world leader in ocean protection. The reserves will cover over 3 million square kilometres, or nearly a third of Australian waters. Commercial and recreational fishing will be restricted or banned, and other activities such as mining and gas recovery will be limited.

This is a wonderful news story about which every Australian should be proud. It will protect habitat for juvenile fish, prevent damage to coral reefs and sea grass beds, and increase the outlook for many large species such as sharks, whales, tuna and marlin. Research on the impact of reserves has shown that they are more effective than expected in driving the recovery and sustainability of fish populations.

Unfortunately, the news cycle has been negative. The conservationists are unhappy, because the proposal does not go far enough. The fishermen are unhappy because the compensation may not be large enough. And another author on The Conversation is concerned that the reserves will not protect the World Heritage Listed Great Barrier Reef because coastal development and gas exploration continues outside of these reserves.

I am sure that all these people have a point, but let’s remember which problem we are addressing. The degradation of oceanic ecosystems affects all of us, and commercial fishing is a large part of the problem. As fishing boats get bigger and more sophisticated, fish that were formerly protected by living in remote areas or deep waters are now regularly harvested. Some fishing practices, such as trawling, damage the sea bed grasses and coral that provide habitat for juvenile fish. The overall impact of oceanic fishing is a decline in fishing stocks and a general decline in the health of oceanic ecosystems. The ocean is a shared resource. We all need to look after it.

So although the reserve system might have been larger and done more to protect our fisheries and marine ecosystems, I still think this is impressive, world class effort. Let’s praise the government for taking a bold move that makes Australia a world leader in the conservation of marine environments.

And although the compensation may not, at this stage, seem like enough for the fishers who have to face uncertainty and job losses, let’s not forget that this policy contains substantial payback for that industry. Protecting our fish stocks into the future will mean that some fishers will be able to pass their livelihoods on to the next generation. This might not have been the case if overfishing and habitat destruction continued at current rates.

And for those who say that this will hurt our economy, remember the huge impact of tourism, and consider that this may only increase in a world where healthy marine ecosystems are getting harder to find. The reefs, the whales, and the magnificent clear waters of this great southern land will continue to attract tourists long into the future.

The next step is to turn toward the land-based conservation measures that will protect our oceans. Coastal development, pollution and rubbish need to be controlled. These are not affected by the marine reserves, but nothing is stopping us from addressing these issues in due course.

Tony Abbott, of course, wants to complain as well. He is quoted as saying that he is “Instinctively against anything that damages recreational … and commercial fishing.” But his instincts are wrong.

Research supports this initiative, and fishing outside of the reserves will be more successful and more sustainable because of it.