Cuts to marine reserves would deliver 'minuscule' economic benefits

Exclusive: Analysis of government review shows destructive fishing practices would rise and very few fishers would benefit
Proposals to allow increased fishing in Australian waters would generate minuscule economic benefits to only a handful of licence holders, according to a new analysis.
The Ocean Science Council of Australia, an independent group of researchers, has criticised a government review that recommended significant cuts to marine reserves. The group says the review would expand the use of destructive fishing practices.
The group has written to the federal environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, asking him to reject the report’s recommendations and instead expand marine protections in line with recent moves by the US, UK, New Zealand and the international community.
In 2012 the Labor government announced a network of 42 marine reserves around Australia. But when the Coalition took power in 2013, the then prime minister, Tony Abbott, suspended their implementation, saying he did not want to “lock up our oceans”, and announced another long review process.
The review was completed this year and released in September. It recommended large reductions in areas categorised as “marine national park zones” which ban all fishing as well as many other degraded environmental protections.
It recommended an overall expansion of areas with some level of protection, but Jessica Meeuwig, from the University of Western Australia, a signatory on the letter, said that was just “smoke and mirrors” since most lower-protection areas had relatively little conservation value.
Hardest hit was the Coral Sea, where 15,000 sq km was set to lose its highest-protection status, and fishing practices known to be incompatible with conservation values were set to be expanded.
In the detailed analysis commissioned by the Save Our Marine Life Alliance, researchers found many of the erosions of protections resulted in tiny economic benefits to very small numbers of fishers.
The review recommended doubling the area open to gillnet fishing around the Northern Territory, which would benefit the whole industry by just $300 a year. That would represent an average of $41 for each licence holder.
South of the Great Barrier Reef, the review recommended allowing the expansion of pelagic longline fishing (long fishing lines that sit near the surface). That would benefit just 92 fishers to the tune of just $335 a year each.
“The review has succumbed to narrow sectoral interests for marginal economic benefits,” said Meeuwig.
The entire reduction of no-take zones in the Coral Sea, which amounts to a reduction twice the size of Tasmania, would mostly benefit the eastern tuna and billfish fishery, most of whose operation is outside the marine reserve.
The researchers found the reduction in no-take zones would increase their catch by just 10%, which is less than the normal year-to-year fluctuation in the fishery.
In the letter the scientists said: “Fragmenting Australia’s largest highly protected area to allow marginal commercial fishing is clearly at odds with supporting conservation outcomes.”
The analysis also found the review was internally inconsistent, with many of its own scientific recommendations being ignored.
The “expert science panel” in the report found that some forms of fishing – including pelagic longline fishing – were inconsistent with the conservation values of marine reserves. But regardless, the review recommended it be allowed in many areas, including a near doubling of the area in the Coral Sea where the practice is allowed.
The scientific part of the report also found that no-take zones should be included in every reserve, as well as in each provincial bioregion. Despite that finding, the recommendations include a dozen reserves with no no-take zones.
“What the minister needs to do is, rather than accepting recommendations from Abbott’s review that erode protections, is take the opportunity to expand it,” said Meeuwig. “There’s no uncertainty about this – that’s actually what needs to be done.”
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