The Turnbull government has released draft management plans for the nation’s marine parks that amount to an “unprecedented roll-back” of protections, a coalition of 25 environmental groups say.
The long-awaited draft plans were released on Friday and propose changes to the 3.3 million square kilometres of Australia’s protected offshore regions expanded in 2012 by the Gillard government.
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The area of marine parks open to fishing would jump to 80 per cent from 64 per cent now, if the changes were to pass through parliament, WWF-Australia said.
“This is a huge step backwards for marine protection,” Richard Leck, WWF’s head of oceans, said. “Australia used to be seen as a global leader in marine conservation. That will no longer be the case if these proposals are implemented.”
Other proposed changes would strip Shark and Vema reefs of marine national park status, while Osprey reef – one of the world’s premier dive sites – has lost more than half its protection, Tony Burke, Labor’s environment spokesman said.
“Five years ago, Labor make the second largest conservation decision in history. Today the Turnbull Government announced the largest undoing of conservation ever,” Mr Burke said.
“The changes to the Coral Sea Marine Park are the same as making it okay to kill native species in a National Park.”
Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, said the government had not changed the boundaries of the parks and would improved the plans of previous Labor administration.
“This is a much more balanced, scientific approach than those previously undertaken for marine parks,” Mr Frydenberg said. “These plans protect what needs to be protected without negatively impacting communities and our country’s economy.”
However, green groups and industries such as recreational diving said the plans propose reducing the amount of area granted maximum protection.
“No country has moved backwards on marine protection before,” Michelle Grady, Oceans Director from the Pew Charitable Trusts, said. “Not even [US president] Donald Trump has done that.”
Of particular concern to the green groups is the Coral Sea Marine Park, where a substantial area previously given the maximum protection had been reduced. (See proposed zones below.)
Ms Grady said the government had chosen to ignore the science contained in independent reviews that backed the original zones.
“All Australians will be justifiably distressed to know that science evidence supporting an increase in protections for marine life has been thrown out the window,” Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said.
The main shift is to increase the “yellow zones” that provide sea-bed protection but not the wildlife dwelling in the water column above. (See chart below showing the 2012 zones, with much greater “green zones” in the Coral Sea.)
“The onus of proof is on the environment” rather than on the fishing industries seeking to exploit these regions, Ms Grady said.
Mike Ball, owner of Mike Ball Adventures, which takes dozens of divers per trip to Coral Sea reefs, said the draft plans were “not acceptable as far as we’re concerned”, with the government pandering to the fishing lobby.
“Fishermen have a bigger vote,” Mr Ball said. “They reacted to hysteria from the fishing lobby.”
Australia’s marine parks cover 36 per cent of the country’s offshore territory, more than the United Nations goal of 10 per cent, and more than in countries such as France, Canada and Mexico, Mr Frydenberg said.
Sally Barnes, the director of National Parks, said the government viewed the oceans “as a shared resource”.
“They provide places for people to watch wildlife, dive and snorkel, go boating and fish,” Ms Barnes said. “They create jobs in industries like fishing and tourism, and are a source of food and energy. ”
Pew’s Ms Grady, though, said the recent widespread coral bleaching around Australia and other threats to the health of the oceans underscored the need to maintain, not reduce, protections now and in the future.
“If you’re hammering the oceans with oil and gas exploration, large-scale commercial fishing and plastic pollution, our oceans are not going to be in a fit state to deal with climate change,” Ms Grady said.
Peter Whish-Wilson, Greens ocean spokesman, predicted the proposals would face parliamentary opposition.
“If the Turnbull Government wants to pick a fight with Australians who love our oceans then they will get one as any attempt to gut ocean protections will face a disallowance in the Senate,” Senator Whish-Wilson said.
“This is the worse possible time to be scaling back environmental protections – it will make us into another international embarrassment just as we have witnessed with LNP climate vandalism.”
The public will be able to comment on the draft plans that cover management of 44 marine parks for the next 10 years.