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Why are we so reluctant to protect marine species from extinction?

Marine parks are an evidence-based way to stop trashing ocean environments. Urban Woodswalker/flickr

Given the growing evidence of catastrophic extinctions in the world’s oceans due to climate change and overfishing (see, for example, the recent IPSO report) one would expect a groundswell of demand for action to conserve our marine species. A look at our attitude to marine parks shows it isn’t so.

The last year or so has seen a real pendulum swing in political will towards a range of environmental issues, from our response to climate change, to river flows in the Murray-Darling Basin and to a swag of marine conservation initiatives.

Australia-wide there has been a political pull-back from important decisions regarding the protection and sustainability of our marine resources.

None has been more disturbing and evidence-free than the stalling in development of a network of Commonwealth and Stare marine parks.

Marine species are declining: parks can protect them

Fishing and marine collecting have been identified here and worldwide as major contributors to decline in functioning of marine ecosystems.

One key tool in the arsenal of marine conservation is the creation and maintenance of Marine Parks or Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). These areas of ocean and coast are protected from key threats through mechanisms that include removal of key predators, disturbance of habitat and local pollution.

Over 1000 scientific papers on marine park costs and benefits have been published in the last decade. The clear consensus is that parks provide an overall benefit to marine conservation.

And our two peak scientific organisations representing marine sciences, Australian Marine Sciences Association and Australian Coral Reef Society, have strongly endorsed MPAs for biodiversity conservation.

How do MPAs work?

The limits of Australian MPAs are generally set based on representativeness, adequacy and comprehensiveness. They are often designed on a principle of multiple use - areas of no take (sanctuary zones), areas where recreational line fishing is allowed (“habitat protection” zones) and general use zones (where some commercial fishing is allowed).

These mixed zones recognise the areas will still need to be exploited. They attempt to develop Parks in harmony with historical uses that have local economic benefits.

Numerous worldwide publications have demonstrated that best conservation outcomes are achieved in no-take “sanctuary” zones - these are typically less than 20% of a marine park, and usually under 10% of the coastal waters.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park has about 30% no-take area. It’s high by Australian standards but means 70% of the world-heritage Reef is exploited to various degrees.

Why the cold feet on MPAs?

The rollout of Commonwealth marine protected areas (derailed somewhat by political lobbying under various special interest groups) is in progress but faces an uncertain future.

The front line in the battle to protect our oceans for the future is, however, in State waters. New South Wales - where I live - is the epicentre of the muddled interactions of politics, science, special interest groups and the lay public.

In my state, five marine parks have been decreed, spread across our five bioregions. One, an MPA in the Hawkesbury bioregion adjacent to Sydney, is noticeably absent, a victim of political manoeuvring and the fishing lobby.

Critics have cried foul at the creation of these MPAs and claimed a fishing lockout, despite sanctuary zones covering less than 7% of coastal waters.

Is the science in on MPAs?

Claims of “no science” have lead to a focus on MPAs in a recent State Parliamentary Inquiry on Recreational Fishing, and a thorough independent review of the Science behind Marine Parks in late 2009.

This latter effort concluded that the “no science” claims were incorrect. Appendix 1 analyses the benefits of marine protected areas in temperate Australian waters.

So you may be surprised to learn that the new Liberal Government in NSW has demanded a fresh investigation into the science behind MPAs. Your surprise may turn to disappointment when you learn that our upper house of parliament is controlled by a Fishers and Shooters party, and such an investigation may be a political payback for their support.

More of the public purse will be used on political expediency; lets hope for some useful outcomes from this latest effort.

Sadly, I fear that the recent publication of exciting new research papers from Australia showing the benefits of sanctuary zones (such as spillover of adult and baby fish, habitat protection) will not appreciably quell the opposition.

Scientists are frequently non-plussed at the uninformed opposition to scientific findings, even findings that are widely accepted in academic circles. Opposition by climate change sceptics and creationists to established science will persist regardless, and I suspect marine park sceptics won’t be swayed by the evidence either!

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