Marine reserves ditched despite tide of research

Over the past 18 months, both federal and NSW governments have abandoned protective marine zones or sanctuaries. Seemingly throwing aside decades of previous research and consultation, the federal government has just announced that it has appointed a new expert panel to review the “management plans and balance of zoning” of Commonwealth marine reserves. This is despite more than 95 per cent of the 750,000 public and stakeholder submissions to the federal government since 2011 supporting greater protection of the marine environment.
On Thursday this week, Environment Minister Greg Hunt and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Senator Richard Colbeck, issued a press release “delivering on its election commitment for an independent review of Commonwealth marine reserves” and announced the chairs and terms of reference for scientific and advisory panels. The release states, tellingly, “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”.
Recent Australian research indicating significant levels of improved diversity and abundance in protected marine zones significantly boosts the case for returning to the reserve protections that the government has suspended. Research also indicates that natural systems in marine protected areas are more resilient to the impacts of climate change, allowing biodiversity a greater chance of persisting into the future.
True, one recently publicised study indicated rare species such as White’s Seahorse can suffer in protected reserves if predators increase following protection. But this can be offset by alternative conservation strategies such as active management of the habitat of such species to maintain habitat quality and minimise predation.
Last December   Hunt confirmed that the government would suspend marine sanctuary “lockouts”, an emotive term for what are generally known as “no take” zones. The previous Labor government declared about a third of Commonwealth waters between approximately 5.5 and 370 kilometres offshore as marine reserves, of which 14 per cent were delegated “no take” zones. This left more than 85 per cent of Australia’s marine environment available for recreational fishers. No-take zones ban all forms of fishing and oil and gas exploration. And importantly for recreational fishers, 96 per cent of waters within 100 kilometres from shore remain open to recreational fishing under the federal government’s network.
In March 2013, the NSW Primary Industries Minister declared a temporary “amnesty” on illegal fishing from ocean beaches and headlands within five of six NSW sanctuaries. With a few minor exemptions, such as special purpose zones and embayments, less than 8 per cent of NSW’s waters are set aside as sanctuaries for marine life where the no-take directive was intended to allow fish and other marine life to recover, and safeguard feeding and breeding spots. Those safeguards relating to beaches and headlands are currently null and void pending a decision by the NSW government on whether to rescind the “amnesty”.
And this week, the announcement of changes to NSW recreational saltwater and freshwater fishing rules has been called “a mixed bag” by the NSW Nature Conservation Council as the reforms have not been based on reliable fish stock data. The NSW Department of Primary Industries has not conducted a comprehensive review of fish stocks since 2008-09.
Three decades of research and hundreds of published studies worldwide have prompted peak scientific bodies in not just Australia but also Europe and the US to strongly promote the formation of networks of marine reserves to conserve biodiversity.
Studies by the CSIRO, and the country’s leading research units at James Cook University, University of Queensland, UTS Sydney, and University of Tasmania have all established the ecological improvements on offer.
The World Parks Congress (WPC) recommended in 2003 that at least 20 to 30 per cent of marine and coastal areas be strictly protected by 2012. In 2010, the Convention on Biological Diversity set a target of formal protection of 10 per cent of marine and coastal areas, including protected areas but also more generally “other effective area-based conservation measures”.
In Australia, websites devoted to groups generally opposed to marine exclusion zones such as Keep Australia Fishing demonstrate political pressure on governments. The Keep Australia Fishing Final Report 2011 (compiled for the Boating and Fishing Council of Australia) states: “In the absence of firm evidence, there can be little justification for excluding all forms of angling in most of the Marine Park Sanctuary Zones. In fact, when it comes to either migratory fish species or highly mobile pelagic species it is a pretty pointless exercise … given that anglers are potentially the best enforcers of these zones against commercial abuse (if they were allowed access to them), the Marine Parks Authorities are losing valuable allies”.
The political intransigence is all the more concerning as research points to continual erosion of marine biodiversity. In February this year, the Reef Life Survey of Australia’s coastline, a 12,000 nautical mile circumnavigation involving 75 trained divers, found significant biodiversity losses in Australian marine life.
Program co-founder Professor Graham Edgar, of the University of Tasmania’s Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies (UTAS), said: “Virtually all of our coastline has had all the larger predatory organisms reduced – from the big fishes to the lobsters”. And, as stated by Edgar earlier this year, fishery catch statistics also show major population declines in commercially important species such as scallops, rock lobsters, barracuda, trumpeter, abalone, warehou, gemfish and sharks.
In a letter to the journal Nature earlier this year Professor Edgar stated that total fish biomass had declined in the MPAs studied at least two-thirds from historical baselines as a result of fishing: “Given the huge scale of fishing impacts, the rate of fish extinctions is likely to increase greatly through this century unless a refugial network of effective MPAs exists to allow persistence of large-bodied species and associated predator-dominated food webs, and broad-scale fisheries management practices significantly improve.”
The letter also argued that the best protection for marine life comes in reserves that are likely to be “no-take”, well-enforced, more than 10 years old, more than 100 square kilometres, and isolated by deep water or sand.
Leading research institutions such as the Australian Marine Science Association (representing over 1000 marine scientists), The Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland, the Oceans Institute at the University of Western Australia, The Australian Coral Reef Society, Pew Environment, the Australian Conservation Foundation, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Australian Marine Conservation Society have expressed alarm about the lack of consultation and research behind the recent government decisions.
Some recent “watershed” research from Australian universities, however, may be the lifeline marine campaigners have been calling for in an attempt to deal with the vocal lobby groups who have called for no or limited restrictions on their fishing.  The research demonstrates a strong link between marine protected areas and increasing fish and crustacean stock.
A just-released study on the Solitary Islands Marine Park in northern NSW has found that unfished zones which had been closed to fishing since 1991 had higher abundances of the giant mud crab, of the order of two to three times greater.  It concluded: “Multiple-use marine parks are a powerful management tool to help protect marine biodiversity and sustain wild fisheries while allowing some access to recreational and commercial activities using zoning arrangements… Management strategies that avoid opening closed areas and that concentrate on effective placement and size of closed areas are likely to be highly effective, even in estuaries and for species other than fish.”
Two recently published scientific studies both point to the success of the Batemans Marine Park, on the southern NSW coast, with over five years of protection leading to a 37 per cent increase in fish across the network of marine sanctuaries compared to partially protected areas.
These NSW studies indicate healthy turnarounds for protected marine areas. Research indicates that ecosystem recovery takes well over 10 years.
Community groups often demand ready research and are often only convinced about protecting ecosystems when they directly and immediately benefit.
A 2012 study on two species of exploited coral reef fish (coral trout and stripey snapper) within a network of marine reserves on the Great Barrier Reef provided compelling evidence that adequately protected reserve networks can make a significant contribution to the replenishment of populations on both reserve and fished reefs at a scale that benefits local stakeholders.
Other research points to the benefits of MPAs to divers and tourism. Many dive communities support campaigns such as Save Our Marine Life, an alliance of 20 conservation groups. A coalition of more than 30 NSW dive businesses wrote to then premier Barry O’Farrell last October, asking the state government to reinstate existing zonings and protection “so that our economic prosperity and the marine life upon which it depends remain healthy into the future”.
Judith Friedlander is a postgraduate researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology, Sydney.


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