Environmental groups have blasted Environment Minister Greg Hunt for taking credit for marine protection efforts that his government has stalled since taking office.
Mr Hunt told the World Parks Congress in Sydney that more than a third of Australia’s marine environment is protected, the groups say, omitting the fact the Coalition government had suspended the creation of 40 new marine parks.
“The international goal is 10 per cent. Australia is at 36 per cent of our marine areas being covered by marine protected parks,” Mr Hunt said. “The 36 per cent is enshrined in law.”
Michelle Grady, oceans director of the Pew Charitable Trusts in Australia, said: “It’s not correct to say 36 per cent is protected when it’s not protected – it’s just on paper.
“It’s like building a car and not taking it out of the factory.”
Late last year, the government halted plans for a new national network of marine parks that had been scheduled to become operational by July this year. The parks would cover about 35 per cent of Australia’s exclusive economic zone – the world’s third largest – with 14 per cent of the zone highly protected.
“What Australia did two years ago when it declared these parks was to create a turning point in marine conservation globally,” Ms Grady said.
“The tenor at the World Parks Congress is that there’s a great big question mark over where things are going if the leading nation all of a sudden chokes, which is exactly what’s happening,” she said.
A spokesman for Mr Hunt declined to comment on the minister’s remarks other than to say that “36 per cent is protected”.
Labor Senator Lisa Singh said Mr Hunt had voided all management plans and removed protection by re-declaring the marine reserves.
“It is a sleight of hand to try to say that these reserves are still protected when the Abbott Government have removed the plans protecting them,” Senator Singh said. “They have instituted a reserves review which is an exercise in duplication, and simply delays the date of re-instigating the management plans and giving our marine areas proper protection.”
Ms Grady said the review appears to be aimed at the highly protected areas, which were the most in need of projection. “Most of the focus of the review will be reviewing the science and justification for those sanctuary zones,” she said.
Sylvia Earle, an ambassador for the World Parks Congress, said Australia appeared to giving up “decades of leadership” in marine conservation that had begun with the creation in the 1970s of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.
“For Australia to pause and not strongly support the vision [of a network of marine parks] is a cause for concern,” said Dr Earle, a biologist who was formerly chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“In the long term, it will be to Australia’s benefit, economically, environmentally and for its security, to have these systems intact,” she said.
Dr Earle will attend the Sydney premier of the documentary Mission Blue at the University of Technology, Sydney, on Saturday.
The film, presented in partnership with the Pew Charitable Trusts, tracks Dr Earle’s efforts to curb the effects of pollution, overfishing and climate change on the world’s oceans.
“We still have time to act,” Dr Earle said. “But we’re closer to the point of no return.”