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Why are Australia’s marine parks being reviewed so soon after they were signed off?

Marine parks are valuable tools to help safeguard species such as seagrasses. AAP Image/James Cook University

The current government review of Australia’s proposed network of marine parks, called the Commonwealth Marine Reserves (CMRs), seems rather premature. After all, the management plans were approved only in March 2013 and as yet only the southeast region is being actively managed.

The network of Commonwealth Marine Reserves is under review. Commonwealth Government

Back in June 2012, when the then federal environment minister, Tony Burke, unveiled the plans for the world’s largest network of marine parks, it was the culmination of more than a decade’s work on both sides of politics and a wide spectrum of sectors.

The work began in 1999, when the then Liberal prime minister, John Howard, established the National Oceans Office with the aim of putting protections in place around Australia’s entire continental shelf. More than 80,000 submissions were received during the consultation process, ultimately resulting in the creation of reserves covering almost 3.2 million square km of Commonwealth waters.

These reserves were set up mainly outside existing commercial fishing zones, mining regions and away from population centres, and designed to have minimal impact of human maritime activities. The implementation of the CMRs has been suspended while the current review is under way.

Not just fish

The Commonwealth reserves (as well as similar reserves in state-administered waters) were part of the wider National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, which aimed to:

…establish and manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of marine reserves (general and special-purpose zones and marine parks) to contribute to the long-term ecological viability of marine and estuarine systems, to maintain ecological processes and systems, and to protect Australia’s biological diversity at all levels.

So, clearly, marine reserves are not just about fish but also about maintaining resilience in marine ecosystems and protecting valuable biodiversity. Their wider benefits have been demonstrated all over the world – for instance, in providing sanctuary zones for migratory species such as whales.

Marine reserves also help sedentary species such as seagrasses, kelp and corals to grow, reproduce and disperse their highly mobile offspring across a wider region. This helps to restock depleted areas or even establish new populations. Careful integration of marine parks with terrestrial National Parks can also help wildlife such as nesting turtles.

Marine reserves are also extremely important in a changing environment. Increased sea surface temperatures, ocean acidification, increasing severity of storms and surges, and changing circulation patterns will all have significant impacts on marine and coastal ecosystems. This is on top of pre-existing stresses such as overfishing, coastal developments and pollutants.

In 2011, for example, a marine heatwave impacted 1,500 km of Western Australia’s coastline. It resulted in severe damage to many species and habitats, particularly macroalgae and seagrasses. This, in turn, led to higher death rates in the commercially important western rock lobster and abalone fisheries.

Events like this are set to increase in frequency and intensity over the coming century. Add to this the fact that 85% of Australia’s population lives within 50 km of the coast and it is clear that management of marine ecosystems must account for climate-related impacts as an economic and social priority. Here are some more reasons why marine reserves are valuable:

● The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park now generates an annual revenue of A$5.5 billion, 36 times more than the income from the commercial fishing industry.

● No-take marine reserves produce far greater biodiversity outcomes than partially protected areas where fishing continues, with benefits increasing exponentially in larger, more isolated reserves such as those proposed for Commonwealth waters.

Long-term studies have shown that no-take reserves provide more resilience against unexpected events such as the 2011 Queensland floods, which dumped huge amounts of runoff into the ocean.

● The total number of marine species known to science is about 226,000, versus an estimated one million currently unknown. Many of these discoveries will come from largely unexplored areas such as deep canyons or under ice sheets, many of them in existing or proposed marine reserves. A recent exploration trip surveying the 4000m deep Perth Canyon is expected to identify myriad new species.

● Thousands of kilometres of coastline around Australia are already being affected by rising sea levels and increased storm surges, causing coastal erosion. Globally, it is forecast that by 2100 losses from coastal flooding could cost up to 9.3% of gross domestic product per year.

● Seismic surveys used in petroleum exploration are known to influence the behaviour of some species of mammals, fish, squid, and plankton.

Holding the environment to ransom

The Abbott government’s decision to revie w the CMRs is yet another illustration of its harsh environmental agenda. The government has cited a lack of consultation and science as the reason for the review. But the release of Burke’s plans in 2012 came after more than 20 years of scientific, economic and social research, and years of consultation with commercial and recreational fishers, the oil and gas industry, conservationists and community groups.

It is important to remember that the overall CMR plan was not just about fisheries, but is part of a comprehensive system for managing all of Australia’s Commonwealth waters and safeguarding its ecosystems. We are concerned that the new review has a strong bias toward the fisheries industry.

The period of consultation has just closed, but we wonder if it will do little more than provide a voice for opponents to ecosystem-based management in general and more specifically conservation zoning using no-take marine reserves (MPAs). Reaching a compromise between commercial and recreational fishers, other commercial users such as the resources and shipping industries, tourism and those who believe that conservation should be a priority is always going to be difficult.

Surely Australia is smart enough to learn from other nations about the disastrous consequences of often irreversible collapses in fish stocks. Once they are gone, and the ecosystem is out of balance, it may not be possible to recover.

The signs are not encouraging. This week’s revelation that the Abbott government has granted petroleum exploration licences in a proposed marine reserve near Western Australia’s Abrolhos Islands does not inspire much confidence that conservation currently ranks high on the agenda.

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