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A booby family on a sandy cay in the Coral Sea. Daniela Ceccarelli, Author provided

The Coral Sea: an ocean jewel that needs more protection

The federal government is considering changes to Australia’s marine reserves to implement a national system. This week The Conversation is looking at the science behind marine reserves and how to protect our oceans.

Off Australia’s northeastern coastline, extending eastwards from the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef, is a vast extent of ocean known as the Coral Sea.

Almost a million square kilometres of the Coral Sea is within Australian waters, making up one of six regions used for planning national networks of marine reserves. Unlike the other regions, virtually all of the Coral Sea is within a single reserve.

On the face of it, this should encourage people who are concerned with conservation of marine biodiversity. But, as often happens, the devil is in the detail.

The effectiveness of the reserve hinges on its internal zones – subdivisions that vary in the uses and activities they allow. So “protected” is a slippery concept. Just how protected the Coral Sea is depends on where and how large the different zones are.

The review of Commonwealth marine reserves, released earlier this month, recommended changes to the zoning arrangements put in place when the network was declared in 2012, but not for the better.

A world-class sea

The Coral Sea is almost entirely open ocean, reaching depths of more than 4,000m. Scattered through this expanse of deep blue are important patches of coral and rock: cays and islets, 30 atoll systems with shallow-water and low-light coral reefs, and seamounts and pinnacles supporting deep-sea, cold-water ecosystems.

The global significance of the Coral Sea for marine biodiversity – including corals, fish, turtles, seabirds, and whales - has been reviewed recently, but new discoveries continue.

Recent exploration of the deep slopes of Coral Sea atolls has found unique and previously undocumented biodiversity, such as precious corals and glass sponges. Many of these species are “living fossils”, now restricted to the deep, dark waters of the Coral Sea.

The southern Coral Sea is also a global hotspot for predators. The protection of large predatory species such as sharks and marlin is particularly important, given their key roles in open ocean ecosystems and the massive worldwide decline of these animals at the hands of industrialised fishing.

The Coral Sea is a global hotspot for marine predators. Daniela Ceccarelli, Author provided

The Coral Sea’s remoteness does not make it immune from human impacts. Some fishing methods alter the structure and composition of seabed ecosystems. Globally and in eastern Australia, pelagic long-lining takes a large toll in bycatch (non-target fish that are discarded, often dead, including shark species listed as vulnerable).

Many reefs in the Coral Sea are open to line fishing, which is known to deplete target populations and adversely affect corals in the neighbouring Great Barrier Reef.

The 2016 coral bleaching event that affected 93% of the Great Barrier Reef also caused significant death on reefs in the northern and central Coral Sea.

The importance and vulnerability of the Coral Sea call for well-planned protection. That protection should also be precautionary - where impacts are unknown or uncertain we should increase protection, or at least not put marine ecosystems at risk. This is one of the explicit principles of marine planning in Australia.

Commercial and recreational fishing present ecological risks that need to be managed carefully. Precaution is also called for because most parts of the Coral Sea, even those in relatively shallow water, are still largely unexplored, with the discovery of new species likely.

The Coral Sea reserve

In November 2012, the Labor federal government announced massive increases to Australia’s marine reserves, including large additions to existing smaller reserves in the Coral Sea. The zoning of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve that resulted was typical of the larger picture.

Zones that prohibited fishing (“no-take” zones, shown in green in the left-hand map below) were mostly far offshore in very deep waters where little or no fishing occurred.

The Coral Sea zones as established (left) and recommended by the review (right) Author provided

Zones that protected the marine environment from open ocean long-lining were placed in areas where little or no long-lining occurred. Most reefs, cays and seamounts remained open to fishing. So did the world’s only known black marlin spawning aggregation.

Overall, the no-take zones were strongly “residual” – placed in areas left over from commercial and recreational uses, and least in need of protection – rather than designed to mitigate known threats.

The approach could be described as “business as usual”, with priority given to existing uses and conservation coming a poor second.

The Coral Sea reserve, take two

Following a backlash against the new marine reserves by commercial and recreational fishing interests the then opposition leader Tony Abbott fished for votes by promising to review the reserves.

Just over a year after they were established, the new reserves were “re-proclaimed” by the Coalition government, effectively rendering them empty outlines on the map. The strength of the pushback against the reserves was perplexing, given that they were obviously designed to have minimal effect on fishing and no effect on extraction of oil and gas.

Before the release of the review, a cynic might have predicted, given statements when the review began, that the process was intended to convert a largely residual reserve system into a completely residual one. As it happens, that is close to what has been recommended for the Coral Sea.

A major feature of the recommended zoning is a reduction of no-take by more than 93,000km², or 9.3% of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve (no-take zones, or national park, now cover 40% of the reserve). No-take zoning is now even more strongly concentrated in remote, deep water where it will make even less difference to fishing than before.

The panel recommended new no-take zones in areas next to those in the central and southern Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, but large parts of the same region in the Coral Sea are proposed to be reopened to demersal trawling.

Some reefs have less protection than before, and some have more. Notably, two of the most important reefs in the Coral Sea – Osprey and Marion – are partly open to fishing and partly no-take. Split zones are known to pose problems for compliance and are typically avoided in conservation planning. Fishing on Osprey could also compromise its value as a globally significant dive destination, specifically for its sharks and pelagic fish.

A giant trevally in the Coral Sea. Daniela Ceccarelli, Author provided

There are net increases in areas open to gear types known to pose ecological risks: sea floor longlines (2,400km² of the reserve, including the Fraser Seamount), sea floor trawl (26,300km²), and open sea long-lining (269,000km²). These changes appear inconsistent with advice on ecological risks.

The Bioregional Advisory Panel for the Coral Sea found that seafloor long-lining is incompatible with the conservation values of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve, particularly on seamounts.

Two target species for open sea long-lining are either overfished or at risk of overfishing, and this fishery poses a high risk for whales, sharks, and turtles.

When evidence was limiting, it appears that the Expert Scientific Panel placed the burden of proof on the environment, not on commercial and recreational users.

Protecting the Coral Sea from what?

Protected areas are meant to protect biodiversity from threats to its survival. Why bother saying that?

Because the 2012 marine reserves made almost no difference to activities threatening marine biodiversity. There is a key difference between protection, which stops threats from affecting species and ecosystems, and re-badging large tracts of ocean in ways that make no difference.

At least for the Coral Sea, the proposed new zones involve further re-badging but less overall protection. A similar mentality appears to underlie both the 2012 and recommended zonings: marine protected areas are good things to have, providing they don’t get in the way of socioeconomic interests.

While the new zones largely failed to protect the Coral Sea’s biodiversity, the review’s Expert Scientific Panel favourably assessed the “performance” of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve in ways that are simply uninformative and distracting.

For instance, one of the measures used by the review is the number of conservation features (such as seafloor types) in reserves. This measure is misleading in three ways: many of the represented features don’t need protection, others are affected to varying, but unstated, degrees by fishing, and we don’t know how much of each feature needs protection.

At the core of systematic conservation planning, which is widely accepted as the most effective way of designing reserve systems, are quantitative objectives for features, preferably reflecting ecosystem structure and function, scaled to reflect levels of threat. But these objectives were notably absent from the assessment of performance of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve, and from the review process that recommended the new zones.

Fish gather over reefs in the Coral Sea. Daniela Ceccarelli, Author provided

How to do things better

Better planning for the Coral Sea would move beyond the qualitative goals and principles advocated by the Expert Scientific Panel, which can be readily interpreted to favour economic considerations over conservation.

Because of the global significance of the Coral Sea and uncertainty around the actual risks posed by fishing, effective planning would be truly precautionary, prioritising the persistence of biodiversity where there is doubt. It would also engage with managers and governments in adjacent marine regions to limit cross-boundary threats.

The amount of protection needed for species and other conservation features, including types of open sea and other significant habitats, would be identified quantitatively by experts on marine biodiversity, considering distinctiveness, threats, and reliance on Australian waters for their persistence.

Those conservation objectives would be achieved by a mix of zones that varied levels of protection from place to place and perhaps seasonally to limit the adverse effects of fishing and other extractive activities. The relative contributions of those zones to each objective would be assessed and put into the mix.

Such an explicit approach was a major reason for the lasting, worldwide recognition of the Great Barrier Reef rezoning in 2004, but has been avoided elsewhere in Commonwealth waters to maximise flexibility for extractive interests.

And finally, effective planning would acknowledge that no-take zones in areas with no fishing make no contribution to conservation.

*Update: this article has been updated to clarify the use of conservation features in measuring reserve performance

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