Ningaloo: Australia's other great barrier reef worth saving

A series of marine parks around Australia are under threat. The public’s ignorance of their existence is just as dangerous to their survival as mining. The Guardian Oceans Correspondent James Woodford reports.
Eight years ago in the crystal waters of Lefroy Bay at Ningaloo, off north-western Australia, I met marine mammal royalty and was forever forced to discard my misconception that Australia’s only true underwater paradise is the Great Barrier Reef.
I had just rolled backwards, alone, into the water from a zodiac to check out a coral bommie surrounded by sand and seagrass. As the curtain of bubbles cleared from in front of my mask, I opened my eyes to discover a dugong was moving directly towards me. It did not cease swimming until we were face to face.
We were so close to each other that the huge, rotund, grey animal could have reached out and wrapped me in its flippers. Time stopped. I looked straight at this near-mythical wild animal before collecting my thoughts enough to realise I knew so little about dugongs that I had no idea whether I was in any danger. In turn it looked at me with its beady eyes, and whisker-covered, vacuum-cleaner mouth, trying to work out the same thing.
I decided to back away and my awkwardness must have alerted the creature that I was not of the sea and it best make itself scarce. The dugong surfaced briefly and then with a power that was belied by its bulk, it made one almighty flick of its tail and vanished.
In the days that followed I joined researchers tagging whale sharks, I scuba dived with manta rays and spent hours snorkelling over coral reefs just off the beaches of one of the most arid and bleak coasts on Earth.
But I have thought of that curious dugong many times in the past few weeks because, exactly a decade after the Western Australian government comprehensively protected Ningaloo, the future of Australia’s north western waters and numerous other marine locations are again at a crossroads.
The federal government is now calling for submissions from the public about the management of ocean reserves right around the continent, including the Commonwealth waters around Ningaloo.
The Australian Marine Science Association says the current federal government proposal for the Gascoyne Marine Reserve, which abuts Ningaloo Reef, primarily protects those areas that are of no interest to the fishing and oil industry.
Elsewhere around Australia, scientists and environmentalists fear too much priority is being given by the current Commonwealth government to protecting fishing and mining businesses. Those businesses are lobbying to see the size of no-take and no-mining areas minimised.
More broadly, scientists fear that the Abbott government is no friend of the ocean and that the remoteness and low media profile of much of Australia’s Commonwealth waters will mean changes may fly under the radar. Decades of research and work towards creating a globally significant network of marine protected areas will be for nothing.
While the nation and the world’s attention has recently been focused on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the rest of the continent’s waters have become a plaything for vested interests, particularly the petroleum industry and commercial fishing.
Perhaps the biggest enemy of a national system of marine reserves is the public’s ignorance of the fact that there is so much else under Australia’s waters that is worth protecting in addition to the Great Barrier Reef.
A dugong, pictured here at Sydney Aquarium, best seen in a marine park such as Ningaloo.
Afterall, very few Australians would be able to put their finger on a map to locate many of the marine treasures whose fate is to be imminently decided by the Abbott government – Rowley Shoals, Arafura Canyons, Geographe Bay, Perth Canyon, Bougainville and Marion Reefs.
Part of the reason I ended up in the water with a dugong in 2006 was because I was researching a story on the impacts of the extension, in November 2004, of the Ningaloo Marine Park to encompass 300km of reef.
At the time of my visit, there was a lot of fear about what the dramatically expanded marine park would mean. The then executive director of angling lobby group Recfishwest, Frank Prokop, told the ABC his organisation was disgusted with the government, and described the Ningaloo plan as pathetic and poorly considered. He said the economy of the region would be devastated because people would stop going there to fish.
He was wrong. Today more than 180,000 tourists each year bring over $140m to the Ningaloo region. People still fish but they also bring sea kayaks, snorkelling gear and surfboards. Tourism in the region is continuing to grow significantly and the main draw card is Ningaloo.
More and more people go to such places hoping not just to bag a trophy fish but also to snatch a trophy experience. And, as a nation, we need to ensure we have a cupboard brimming full of trophy marine reserves to drive a tourism economy based not on extraction but instead on exhilaration.
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