'A bit of a joke': Marine park plans stir mixed reviews

Bruce Batch, a Cairns-based fisherman, is cautious about the Turnbull government’s plans for the Coral Sea marine park, even though it potentially boosts his industry by slashing the area of highest protection in half.

The proposal, tabled in parliament on Wednesday, will leave just a quarter of the Coral Sea as a green zone – which bans all fishing and mining – down from 50 per cent under Labor’s plan.

Almost 70 per cent of the Coral Sea would be given “yellow zone” protection, leaving it open to fishing, but it’s likely only commercial groups would benefit, Mr Batch said.

“It sounds good to say that it’s open to recreational fishing [as the Coalition has said], but everyone sees it as a bit of a joke,” the 67-year-old fisherman said as he prepared his boat “Sydney Lewis” for a five-day voyage.

“You wouldn’t get one in a 100 boats out there doing recreational fishing.”

Mr Batch supplies 150 tonnes of fish a year to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Getting more Australian boats into the Coral Sea – beyond the protected Great Barrier Reef – might also help curb illegal activity from foreign fishing crews, he said.

The commercial industry was more positive, calling the plans, a “relief” for the sector.

“We’re achieving greater protection without having to sacrifice the ability to feed Australian families Australian fish,” Jane Lovell, chief executive of Seafood Industry Australia, said.

Josh Frydenberg, the environment and energy minister, said the proposals struck a better balance that those introduced by the Gillard government in 2012 but never implemented.

“Under the plans, Australia would have 36 per cent of its waters listed as marine parks,” Ms Lovell said.

About 70 per cent of the fish Australians consume are imported. Even so, the local industry generates about $3.2 billion a year and employs 11,000 people with scope for growth, she said.

Sustainability rules, including fish quotas, were set by states and the federal government, regardless of marine park arrangements, Ms Lovell said.

Environmental groups, however, said they were dismayed by the government’s proposals, which would run for 10 years should they pass parliament.

“Here we are with a plan that overall reduces sanctuary zones by 35 million hectares, or twice the size of Victoria,” Darren Kindleysides, a director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said.

“It’s one of the biggest setbacks for conservation protection we’ve seen in this country”, and went against the government’s own independent scientific report, he said. While our fisheries management was “better than many other places in the world,” he said, “that doesn’t mean it’s sustainable”.

Richard Leck, head of oceans for WWF-Australia, said the government’s plan would be “be open slather for destructive commercial fishing activities like trawling, gillnetting and longlining”.

“Forty-two marine parks are now open to the construction and operation of oil and gas pipelines,” he said.

Labor’s environment spokesman Tony Burke flagged on Tuesday plans to move a disallowance motion that would block the government’s package, a move yet to be backed by the Greens.

“We are currently seeking legal advice from a range of quarters and consulting widely with stakeholders on how to respond to the government’s marine reserve plans,” Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said.

For Mr Batch, the fisherman, there’s no intention to retire after almost half a century in the game.

“I’m second generation, my dad was a fisherman,” he said. “I’m only to try to feed people – that’s the bottom line.”


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