Australia’s leading marine scientists are appealing to the federal government to reject a review expected to recommend a significant reduction in the size of ocean sanctuaries and an expansion of areas permitted for commercial fishing.
Tony Abbott announced the review of the boundaries of Labor’s marine parks, counted by the former government as one of its greatest environmental achievements, during the 2013 election campaign, and said he would scrap the just-finished management plans so that the fishing industry could be given a greater say.
The leading scientists understand the review, now finally completed, recommends a sizeable reduction in some areas previously designated as closed to fishing and trawling, particularly in the Coral Sea, and say it has ignored expert scientific advice.
“If the government winds back what was already just partial environmental protection it would be terrible for the environment and send a terrible message to the world,” said West Australian marine science professor Jessica Meeuwig.
“We have no faith in this process. They haven’t spoken to marine scientists, despite our best efforts. They spent a lot of time talking to the extractive industries. If Malcolm Turnbull is serious about being guided by science and by evidence he will reject recommendations to reduce marine sanctuary zones,” she said.
Meeuwig is one of 10 leading marine researchers who have formed the Ocean Science Council of Australia and have published benchmarks against which the review should be judged, including:
No further diminishment of marine national park zoning in bioregions and key ecological features should occur as these are already significantly under-represented in the 2012 plans
The international standard for ocean protection of a minimum of 30% of each marine habitat in highly protected no-take marine national parks should be met;
Very large marine national parks such as that proposed for the Coral Sea should be preserved
“We have seen little evidence that the review process has focused on scientific evidence, rather it appears to have largely been an exercise in appeasing stakeholders with extractive interests,” the OSCA members state in the analysis report.
“We further note that there has been no formal consultation with OSCA despite our significant capacity to provide input to a scientific review.”
Osca’s members also include Hugh Possingham, the director of the Australian Research Council Centre for environmental decisions at the University of Queensland and Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute and professor of marine science at the University of Queensland.
After fierce lobbying from recreational and commercial fishers and colleagues, Abbott announced the review during a visit to a fishing trade show on the Gold Coast, saying the Coalition would not “lock up the oceans.”
“We know that the biggest supporter of environmentally responsible fishing practices is the fishing industry – because they do not want to harm the very environment that is providing them with a living,” the Coalition said in its policy statement.
“Australians aren’t just proud fishers, they are smart fishers – and they know that Labor’s marine park lockouts are about managing the Greens, not managing the environment.”
Labor always rejected concerns by the fishing industry that it was “locking up oceans”, saying less than 2% of commercial fisheries’ catches would be affected by the new protected areas and recreational fishers would not be affected at all because the parks were hundreds of kilometres offshore and therefore well out of reach of a fisherman in a tinnie.
After a long period of consultation, Labor announced its decision to protect more than 2.3m sq km of ocean in marine parks in late 2012, offering $100m in compensation to the fishing industry.
Environmental groups declared a historic victory, but fishers and charter operators began a furious campaign against the move, strongly backed by some Liberal and National party MPs.
The then environment minister Tony Burke said the marine parks would protect “some incredible marine environments, including the Perth Canyon in the south-west and the stunning reefs of the Coral Sea, and this announcement cements Australia’s position as a world leader on environmental protection’’.
Restrictions on fishing in the reserves varies from a total ban to a trawling ban, to areas where recreational catch and release are permitted.
Announcing the panels conducting the review in 2014 environment minister Greg Hunt said it would be based on science and aimed to “restore community confidence” in the marine reserve system.
“Unlike the previous government, we are committed to getting the management plans and the balance of zoning right, so we have asked the expert panels to consider what management arrangements will best protect our marine environment and accommodate the many activities that Australians love to enjoy in our oceans,” he said.