Draft guidelines released on Friday propose increasing the total proportion of Australia’s marine reserves permitting commercial fishing from 64 to 80 per cent. If environment minister Josh Frydenberg’s proposal is approved, Australia will become the first country to wind back its ocean protection measures.
At the moment, 36 per cent of Australian waters are classified as marine parks. These areas are closed to oil and gas exploration and restrict commercial fishing to defined zones where the environmental threat is considered low.
Under the proposed changes, one of the hardest-hit regions will be the Coral Sea marine park adjoining the Great Barrier Reef near Queensland. Strict regulations are currently in place – including a fishing ban in half the 1-million-square-kilometre reserve – because it is one of the few regions in the world where large species like tuna, marlin and sharks continue to thrive.
The area is also on the annual migration route for humpback whales, and has important nesting sites for seabirds and threatened turtle species.
Industry vs the environment
Frydenberg is proposing cutting the no-fishing areas of the reserve by 53 per cent to “enable a continued Australian tuna fishing industry based out of northern Queensland”.
The type of tuna fishing that will be allowed – known as pelagic longline fishing – could harm other marine species, says Darren Kindleysides at the Australian Marine Conservation Society. The method involves hanging long lines with baited hooks under the water surface, which entangle and kill sharks, turtles, dolphins, small whales and seabirds, he says.
Knock-on effects could also be felt in the Great Barrier Reef, says Kindleysides. “The Coral Sea is the cradle of the Great Barrier Reef – it acts like a buffer and replenishes it with new life,” he says. “It makes no sense to cut protections when the reef is already under immense pressure.”
The draft plan to expand commercial fishing is now open to public consultation and could be implemented as early as 2018. The government has also flagged that it is considering additional future cuts to marine park protections, including introducing “blue zones” to permit underwater oil and gas mining.