Government winds back marine protections to support fishing industry

The Turnbull government will strip back highest-level protections in a host of sensitive marine areas, including critical waters near the Great Barrier Reef, saying it is protecting the environment while supporting fishing and tourism.

But Labor has branded the changes “the largest removal of areas from conservation in history” and will seek to disallow the proposed regulation in Parliament.

The government is on Wednesday expected to table the proposal, which is a culmination of a review that began in 2014 under former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Mr Abbott suspended the unfinished marine protection process instigated by the former Labor government, which would have created 40 additional reserves along the Australian coast.

The Coalition changes, which would be in place for a decade, retain 3.3 million square kilometres of Australia’s protected offshore regions but allow commercial fishing and other activities in a range of new areas.

The government is reducing the highest level of protections in the Coral Sea, near the Great Barrier Reef.

The government is reducing the highest level of protections in the Coral Sea, near the Great Barrier Reef.

The government would reduce to 24 per cent the area of the Coral Sea, adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, afforded the highest level of “green zone” protection – down from 50 per cent under Labor’s plan. Mining and fishing is banned in green zones.

Almost 70 per cent of the Coral Sea would be given “yellow zone” protection, which protects the sea floor but allows for some extractive activity, and fishing in the water above the seabed. Conservationists say such protection does not adequately protect biodiversity.

A department spokeswoman said no mining would be allowed in the Coral Sea.

Overall, 80 per cent of Australia’s marine park waters would be opened to commercial fishing, up from 63 percent.

The government believes the regulation protects important marine habitat, maintains sustainable fishing and promotes ecotourism. It argues the changes are needed to reduce the financial effects on commercial fishers of Labor’s plan, and simplify zoning and boundaries to enable better compliance.

The coalition plan would mean 97 per cent of Commonwealth waters within 100 kilometres of the coast will be open for recreational fishing.

More ocean area would be protected by either green or yellow zones, increasing seafloor protection by about 200,000 square kilometres. More iconic reefs, canyons and other features would be in high-protection zones and the area of marine parks closed to mining would increase to 73 per cent.

Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg said more targeted restrictions and the integration of marine park management with world-class fisheries management meant “we have not only increased conservation protection, but also ensured regional economies are supported”.

The plan is slated to begin in July this year.

Labor environment spokesman Tony Burke said the government was undertaking “the largest removal of areas from conservation in history”.

“No country anywhere in the world has taken as much area out of conservation as the Turnbull government took with the stroke of a pen this afternoon,” he told Fairfax Media on Tuesday.

Mr Burke said the reduced Coral Sea protections went beyond that proposed by an independent review.

“It allows a pathway for trawlers and longliners to go all the way from north to south in the Coral Sea. That means we go from a highly protected area to an area where super trawlers can turn up.

“The independent review was bad enough and the government has … thought even that was too kind to the ocean and they had to go harder.”

He said Labor will move disallowance motions in both houses of Parliament. The motion is likely to be backed by the Greens.

The government released a draft of the changes in July. WWF branded them a “huge step backwards for marine protection” and the Australian Marine Conservation Society said the government had wilfully ignored scientific evidence supporting an increase in marine life protections.

But Seafood Industry Australia said in September the proposed changes balanced environmental imperatives with the need for “a sustainable protein source and the interests of commercial and recreational fishers”.


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