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Our new marine parks: the unanswered questions

New marine parks at both Commonwealth and state level pose many questions for users of the marine environment in Western Australia. AAP/Splash Communications

While surfing recently in WA’s newly established Ngari Capes Marine Park, one of us was asked several questions by other surfers about the new marine protected areas.

These and other questions have been the subject of much debate around Australia since Environment Minister Tony Burke announced the final plan for the new Commonwealth network of marine reserves.

These questions are particularly topical in WA where, in the same week as the Commonwealth plan was announced, State Environment Minister Bill Marmion announced the creation of the Ngari Capes Marine Park stretching from Geographe Bay to Augusta.

What guides the establishment of no-take zones?

There are globally recognised principles for the establishment of networks of no-take zones that can be summarised by the key words:

  • Representative, so that they encompass the key habitats in need of protection
  • Replicated, so that each protected habitat is included in more than one zone
  • Adequate, so that they are sized and located in ways that will ensure the target be achieved
  • Networked, so that they are not managed independently but in a concerted manner, with a view of providing connectivity between them.

These are the same principles that have been used to create systems of no-take zones across the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and internationally along the coast of California and the North Hawaiian Islands. These principles were recognised in the consultation paper produced for the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network [1].

Are the no-take zones in the right place?

It is apparent that the proposed Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network falls short of fulfilling all of these principles, particularly that of representative no-take zones, in spite of Tony Burke’s description of the new Commonwealth plan as “the largest network of representative marine protected areas in the world”.

Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network - final proposal. Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

With the limited knowledge that we have, we know that in Australia marine organisms form distinct assemblages and communities along gradients in depth and position along the coast. The present network of no-take zones does not adequately encompass the diversity of these marine assemblages. We know that some species use a variety of habitats in different depths during phases of their life and move from State to Federal waters. The concept of protected habitat corridors between essential habitats is well established in terrestrial conservation management.

With the exception of the Great Barrier Reef, there appears to be little alignment between the State and Commonwealth no-take zones to create these corridors. This is an opportunity lost.

Instead of representing the range of habitats and depths found in Commonwealth waters, most of the new no-take zones cover some of the very deepest and furthest offshore habitats. The few no-take zones that include shallower waters near the coast tend to be very far from any centres of population.

The Commonwealth announcement was framed as a bold move, but maybe it is not so bold. Placing no-take zones in deep, offshore waters removes many issues that need to be faced when areas closer to land and population centres are involved. Because the nearshore waters are under State jurisdiction, under the three-mile rule, the network of Commonwealth must work closely with State marine conservation authorities to maximise the outcomes.

In contrast, the no-take zones within the Ngari Capes Marine Park, newly established by the WA government, appear to be generally representative, replicated and, despite a few gaps, networked throughout the park. However, are the new coastal no-take zones in Ngari adequate?

Ngari Capes Marine Park. WA Department of Environment and Conservation

Are the no-take zones large enough?

Less than 1% of the oceans are currently protected by no-take zones, whereas the Convention on Biological Diversity aims at protecting 10% of all the planet, a target that is close to being realised on land.

The Commonwealth proposal was announced as “expanding the national network of reserves to cover more than a third of Commonwealth waters” but of this, only 13% are in no-take zones, which exceeds the 10% target. Hence, the no-take area is substantially less than the third of Commonwealth waters encompassed by the national network.

However, it is critical to note that no-take protection of the shelf and near-shore areas is much lower than these overall figures, particularly on the west and north-west coast of Western Australia.

Eleven percent of the Ngari Capes Marine Park is designated as no-take zones, meeting the targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The sanctuaries cover a range of sizes and represent different habitats.

As marine scientists, we have worked in and around many no-take zones around the globe. A consistent pattern we have seen is that people often like to fish along the boundaries at either end of coastal no-take zones due to improved fishing that can be found there.

These increased catches often make the no-take zones popular with locals, but can also result in strong contrasts of few targeted species being seen near the boundaries compared to higher densities in the centre.

Thus, the Ngari sanctuaries may not provide adequate protection due to the fact that many of the boundaries along the shore are open to fishing, reducing their effective size.

Will there be more fish inside the no-take zones?

Scientists have found a range of interesting changes in the biodiversity within no-take zones. In New Zealand, certain sanctuaries have increased densities of lobster and snapper, while other no-take zones have only increased lobster or only increased snapper [2].

In Tasmania, it has been shown that the increase in lobster inside no-take zones leads to a decrease in sea urchins and increase in kelp [3].

In the Spanish Mediterranean, it has been shown [4] that the total catch of lobsters around no-take zones has increased greatly since protection and that increased numbers of eggs are being produced by the very large lobsters inside the area.

In recently published research [5] from the Great Barrier Reef, it was demonstrated that a large proportion of the recruits of targeted fishes in fished areas originated from inside no-take zones.

It can be very difficult to predict what changes will occur in new no-take zones, particularly in regions where few such zones currently exist. Western Australia has a unique combination of oceanography and geology that has led to patterns in marine biodiversity that are distinct from any other part of the world [6]. Predicting what changes may occur within new no-take zones in this region is particularly difficult.

Research into existing no-take zones in Western Australia has found increases in lobsters and certain fish species [7,8,9], but these observations can’t be extrapolated to the new no-take zones.

Studies of sub-tropical areas closed to fin fish fishing have found large differences in high-risk fishery species but have also documented declines in the relative abundance of target species [10,11].

For the Ngari Capes Marine Park, we predict that there will be changes in biodiversity, including increases in fished species. However, these changes would be much greater if the no-take zones were extended to the shore.

The endemic and iconic West Australian dhufish and blue groper used to be readily caught from the shore in this region and could be seen swimming in the shallows. This could again be the case if these otherwise well designed no-take zones had also protected the shoreline.

What are the benefits going to be?

In addition to science and education, no-take zones can also contribute towards local and international tourism. The oldest no-take zone in New Zealand is situated by an unremarkable beach but has been found to attract annual visitor numbers of 350,000, who snorkel, dive or simply watch from the shore, and AU$14 million dollars a year to the local community [11].

No-take zones can provide a “window to the past and vision for the future” [12], and can be amazing places for the public to experience the marine environment. They are essential for understanding the effects of fishing on marine biodiversity.

Unanswered questions

We welcome the announcement of the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network and the creation of the Ngari Capes marine park.

However, as always, details are important, and we are left with questions for the Commonwealth plan:

  1. Why does the plan miss the opportunity for greater representation of different habitats and ecosystems?

  2. Do we have the capacity to enforce protection in the large no-take zones located far offshore?

  3. Will robust monitoring plans be deployed to document and inform the public of the biodiversity of these no-take zones and potential changes associated with protection?

  4. Deepwater species can be very vulnerable to fishing pressure. Given the focus on deep offshore waters, how much fishing effort will be displaced and will this result in increased pressure on other areas?

In respect to the Ngari Capes Marine Park, we have almost created an amazing marine park. But in light of the lack of protection along the shoreline, will the previously fished species increase in size and abundance inside the no-take zones?

These are important questions which are of interest to all ocean users in WA – including fishers, divers, tourism operators and beach users.


  1. Australian Government - Department of Sustainability, E., Water, Population and Communities, Proposal for the South-west Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network – Consultation Paper. 2011. p. 32.

  2. Langlois, T.J. and W.J. Ballantine, Marine ecological research in New Zealand: Developing predictive models through the study of no-take marine reserves. Conservation Biology, 2005. 19(6): p. 1763-1770.

  3. Ling, S.D., et al., Overfishing reduces resilience of kelp beds to climate-driven catastrophic phase shift. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2009. 106(52): p. 22341-22345.

  4. Goni, R., et al., Net contribution of spillover from a marine reserve to fishery catches. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 2010. 400: p. 233-243.

  5. Harrison, H.B. et al., Larval Export from Marine Reserves and the Recruitment Benefit for Fish and Fisheries. Current Biology, 2012. 22: p.1023–1028.]

  6. Langlois, T.J., et al., Consistent abundance distributions of marine fishes in an old, climatically buffered, infertile seascape. Global Ecology and Biogeography, in press.

  7. Bellchambers, L., et al., Development of a long-term program to monitor coastal communities within the Swan region. Department of Fisheries. 2008.

  8. Westera,M., Lavery, P., Hyndes. G. Differences in recreationally targeted fishes between protected and fished areas of a coral reef marine park. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology, 2003, p 145-168

  9. Watson, D. et al. Protection from fishing alters the species composition of fish assemblages in a temperate-tropical transition zone. Marine Biology, 2007. 152(5) p 1197-1206.

  10. McLean, D.L., E.S. Harvey, and J.J. Meeuwig, Declines in the abundance of coral trout (Plectropomus leopardus) in areas closed to fishing at the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, Western Australia. Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology. 406(1-2): p. 71-78.

  11. Hunt, L., Economic Impact Analysis of the Cape Rodney Okakari Point (Leigh) Marine Reserve on the Rodney District, in Investigation number 4052: A report prepared for the Department of Conservation, New Zealand. 2008. p. 43.

  12. Bohnsack, J.A., Shifting baselines, marine reserves, and Leopolds biotic ethic. Gulf and Caribbean Research, 2003. 14(2): p. 1-7.

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