The government's marine park plans are diabolical for ocean protection

On 20 March, the environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, released the management plans for Australian Marine Parks “for all Australians”, indicating that these plans demonstrate a “balanced and scientific evidence-based approach to ocean protection”.
The management plans are neither balanced nor evidence-based, a position that was supported by over 1,400 Australian and international marine researchers in response to the draft plans, released last year for public consultation.

Since 2012, 36% of Australia’s ocean territory has been within marine parks. However, the devil is in the detail and what is meant by a “park”. The management plans just released in response to former prime minister Tony Abbott’s decision to suspend the 2012 plans now give us the detail, and it is diabolical for ocean protection.
Science-based? The government has ignored decades of marine research and evidence by choosing to place much of the marine park area into various forms of partial-protection zoning rather than green zones which afford full protection. Peer-reviewed science repeatedly demonstrates that partial protection does not generate the benefits of full protection, as any sex-ed teacher worth their salt(water) would agree. By turning to partial protection, we reduce biodiversity outcomes, while fishery and tourism benefits; we weaken resilience to climate change and increase management costs.
A particularly insidious form of partial protection is that of “habitat protection zones” whereby only activities that affect the seabed are excluded. It sounds good but is really #fakescience. Such zoning ignores the important biological links between animals in the water column and the seabed. It allows commercial fishing activities within the marine parks that have already been assessed as incompatible with conservation in the government’s own risk reports. Indeed, such zoning creates the opportunity for industrial scale fishing within our marine parks by vessels such as the imported Dutch super trawler, the Geelong Star, that so many Australians rejected.

Balance? The pub test on balance would be failed. 97% of all Australian waters within 100 km of the coast remains open to recreational fishing. The Coral Sea and Australia’s north-west are two of the world’s last true tropical marine wildernesses, yet the plans fully protect less than 25% of the Coral Sea and less than 5% of the north-west. Ecologically significant parks of the south-west region such as Geographe and Western Kangaroo Island have 1.5-5% of their area afforded protection, leaving over 95% open to extractive activities. Many parks have no green zones at all.
Such a meagre offering of ocean protection by a nation that prides itself on its ocean leadership comes at a time when global marine trends are worrying. Internationally, fish landings have been declining since 1996. Ecologically and economically important species such as tunas and sharks have experienced declines of between 60 and 95% in their abundance over the last ~50 years. Even in Australia, with its relatively strong fisheries management, we have experienced sharp declines in commercially and recreationally important species that have led fisheries agencies to drastically reduce landings.
Fully protected marine parks, combined with strong fisheries management, can support ocean wildlife in its recovery from overexploitation and build resilience so these species can better navigate the challenges of a warming ocean and habitat modification. Green zones are the engine room of fisheries production, as demonstrated by both research and the many commercial and recreational fishers that target the boundaries of green zones where spillover occurs. Australia’s oceans contribute some $25 billion per year to our blue economy as non-market ecosystem services. Yet these services are at risk as we further industrialise our oceans.
These new plans, unless they are disallowed in parliament, will stand for 10 years. It is tempting to accept a poor outcome rather than nothing, and look forward to improving it over time. But time is flying for our oceans as our industrial footprint grows exponentially and pressing issues of food security grow. These plans will do little for oceans and our blue economy.

It is time to build on the many lessons learned since 2012 when the outer boundaries of 44 new marine parks were established, and to create a set of management plans that are indeed evidence-based and balanced.
Frydenberg suggests these are marine parks for “all” Australians. He has however overlooked our young Australians who will inherit the outcomes of our risky experiment on our oceans.
 Professor Jessica Meeuwig is director of Marine Futures Lab, University of Western Australia and founding member of Ocean Science Council of Australia

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