Commercial fishing would be allowed in sensitive coral reefs and pristine waters off Australia under advice set to be presented to the Turnbull government that discards landmark marine protections, conservationists say.
Critics say the review of 40 marine reserves is also unlikely to curtail the oil and gas industry, which is pushing for better access to Australia’s seabeds.
It follows the government’s controversial decision to allow petroleum exploration in areas identified as marine sanctuaries while the review was under way.
However fishers say the mooted changes will keep biodiversity protected and the oil and gas industry says ocean operations are essential to Australia’s economy and its energy security.
Fairfax Media spoke to environmentalists and commercial fishers, who in August were presented with maps prepared by the review panel. The plans are being finalised and are due to be handed to the government within a month.
They said the panel proposed allowing commercial fishing in reserves in the Coral Sea off Queensland, around NSW’s Lord Howe Island and other marine areas that had been identified as future no-go zones.
Save Our Marine Life campaign manager Michelle Grady said the maps showed “the interests of mining and commercial fishing were taking precedence”.
Marine reserves are a policy area familiar to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. As environment minister in 2007 he began the national system of marine protection by announcing 13 reserves in waters off south-east Australia. Those areas are not under review.
His Labor successor Tony Burke completed the network in 2012, announcing 40 additional reserves along the Australian coast to create “a national parks estate in the ocean”.
The reserves were not yet in force when the Abbott government won power in 2013 and announced they would be reviewed by independent experts. More than 13,000 submissions were received, but have not been released.
Ms Grady said proposed sanctuary protection from fishing in the Coral Sea, which sits adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, would be scrapped at four important reefs and a proposed deep water sanctuary zone would be reduced in size, according to the latest plans.
She said part of the sanctuary zone around NSW’s Lord Howe Island, a tourism drawcard, would also be reduced. Other potential loss of protection included waters around the Kimberley, the Gulf of Carpentaria, the western side of Cape York and parts of the Great Australian Bight off Western Australia.
Ms Grady said the panel had not indicated any intention to reduce marine zones where oil and gas activity was allowed, despite urging from scientists and an alliance of 20 environment groups including Pew, Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF.
The oil and gas industry has previously said the review must recognise the need to attract investment for the exploration and development of energy resources.
Commonwealth Fisheries Association director Jeff Moore said the proposed maps protected biodiversity while minimising effects on the industry.
He said in the Coral Sea the panel intended to “marginally reduce the size of the [proposed] locked-out areas” but fishers would use sustainable methods, and many areas remained protected.
He said mooted changes around Lord Howe Island would also lead to fewer impacts on the fishing industry, but protection was strengthened in other waters in the area.
Fairfax Media supplied a list of areas that may be subject to reduced protections to the Department of the Environment, which did not confirm them. A spokeswoman said the government is committed to protecting the marine environment and “will not be allowing oil and gas exploration and production or commercial fishing in sensitive marine areas”.
“It would be inappropriate to pre-empt the outcomes of the independent review while its considerations are ongoing,” she said.
Dive Industry Association of Australian president Richard Nicholls said the review threatened dive, scuba and tourism operators.
“A healthy marine environment is the foundation of our industry and is a unique marketing advantage for international and high-value eco-tourism,” he said