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Big splash: welcome back to top-shelf marine conservation

Networks of nature: a potato cod with striped cleaner wrasse at Osprey Reef, an area in the expanded marine reservations announced today. Flickr/richard ling

Today’s announcement of a national network of marine parks is really a memorable day for Australian nature conservation.

The political rhetoric and self-congratulation associated with major events is often overstated. But whilst there are qualifications about aspects of today’s declaration of a very substantial suite of marine protected areas (MPAs) it is truly a global milestone and does place Australia back at the global forefront of marine conservation and marine-protected-area declarations.

This is a very positive outcome for current and future generations and should be viewed as major step forward for marine conservation both in Australia and in the world.

The extent of marine-protected areas (MPAs) globally trails a great distance behind the extent of land national parks and conservation areas, both in total area and the percentage of sea/ land covered - despite oceans making up 70% of the surface area of the planet. These MPAs are declared for the same objectives as land parks, i.e. to protect the ecological processes, flora, fauna, and geological features of special places in perpetuity.

Within these MPAs there are a range of levels of protection which is reflected in their classification using the categorisation system of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Category 1 and 2 reserves are regarded as being highly protected and usually are referred to as “no-take” MPAS as they exclude the extraction of both living and non-living natural resources and organisms. These are the terrestrial equivalent of national parks and sanctuaries. The extent of these in today’s declaration is the major reflection of the value of these reserves to nature conservation. Multiple-use areas of the MPAs allow other uses to occur and gain lower IUCN category ratings.

The Government’s announcement today is a very important one and does return Australia to leadership in MPA declaration.

There will be criticisms of the MPAs – some will be driven by understandable self-interest (e.g., from recreational and commercial fishers) but the boundaries of the MPAs have been drawn after considerable public consultation, and it appears that any commercial fishery losses will be compensated to the same extent as those fishers displaced when Howard Government Minister David Kemp last placed Australia in a global leadership position in 2003 with a sixfold increase in the high protection “no-take” area in that global icon, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

There will be also comment about the extent and boundaries of specific MPAs (and the absence of others). In particular, it does appear at first glance that the areas in the Great Australia Bight, for instance, have rather unusual boundaries and are not as extensive (comprehensive and representative are the technical terms) as their natural values would lead one to presume.

This would appear to reflect the primacy of the oil and gas industries, and their apparent strong influence over the Minister, Martin Ferguson (who curiously represents an inner urban seat in Melbourne with a 20%+ Greens vote and may be under some pressure there at the next election). The oil and gas industry always gets what it wants and this appears to be the case here again.

Nevertheless panning out again and looking at the whole of the system, it is large and diverse and probably exhibits as not only the largest MPA system of any nation in the world but also probably the most comprehensive in terms of its range across the tremendously diverse large marine ecosystems and marine bioregions of Australia’s enormous marine territory (twice the area of our land mass).

The next step will be ensure these are fully declared and then to prepare proper implementation and management plans to ensure these are protected areas in practice as well as in theory.

Then the focus will return to the state governments who control the coastal waters of Australia (with the exception of the Great Barrier Reef), i.e. the area out to (usually) three nautical miles off shore. In these coastal waters, where human use is much more intensive and land practises impact heavily on the health of the marine ecosystems (over 70% of marine pollution comes from land), the extent of MPAs and particularly highly protected MPAS (Category 1 and 2 of the IUCN) is only a small fraction of the equivalent land parks in the states. Here we need a lot more effort to ensure the Federal system of MPAs is replicated closer to shore.

In conclusion whilst there can and should be discussion of specific aspects of some of the new MPAs this is a day to celebrate – well done Australia.

Comments welcome below.

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