The Coalition has launched a review of the vast network of marine reserves set out by the previous Labor government, to deliver what it calls a more “sensible balance” between fishing and environmental concerns.
In 2012 Labor formally protected more than 2.3 million square kilometres of ocean environment
, creating the largest network of marine reserves in the world. The reserves are made up of five main zones surrounding every state and territory, banning fishing in some of these areas.
The Coalition has suspended the usage plans for these zones pending a review, arguing that recreational fishers had been unfairly locked out of the process.
An expert scientific panel and bioregional advisory panels have been set up to assess the commonwealth marine reserves.
Bob Beeton, an associate professor of environment management at the University of Queensland, will chair the scientific panel. Other members of the panel include marine biologists Dr Julian Pepperell and Dr Sabine Dittmann.
The bioregional advisory panels, which will assess protection requirements in different parts of Australia, are largely made up of fishing industry representatives. All of the panels will report back to the government by mid-2015.
The environment minister, Greg Hunt, said the review would examine the management of the marine reserves “rushed through by the previous government”.
“It is important that an independent review based on science is undertaken which reconsiders zoning boundaries to restore community confidence,” he said.
“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.”
Senator Richard Colbeck, the parliamentary secretary for agriculture, added: “Our aim is to have a sensible balance, which protects the environment, supports a sustainable fishing industry, attracts tourism and provides cultural, recreational and economic benefits for coastal communities.”
Environmental groups have criticised the review of the marine reserves, pointing out that consultation took place over a number of years, with around 80,000 submissions considered by the previous Labor government.
“It’s unnecessary, it puts into question much needed protection of marine life, and it will cost a lot of money,” Michelle Grady, ocean campaigner at the Pew Charitable Trusts, told Guardian Australia. “There has been 10 years of science and consultation, in fact it started under the John Howard government. I’m perplexed why this is happening.
“The vast majority of Australia’s marine environment remains open to recreational fishing. Most of the protected areas start hundreds of kilometres offshore.
“The government has a responsibility to look after this ecosystem like we do on land. We never question national parks on land. These areas were put aside to give species a fighting chance, and the benefits that come from that include protecting fish stocks for everyone. It’s just common sense.”
Grady said the marine reserves protect endangered sea lions, as well as key breeding ground for whales and dolphins.