Deconstructing the Australian marine reserves proposal

The world’s largest network of marine reserves would be created under the Australian federal government plan.You’ve undoubtedly heard about the federal government’s recent commitment to establish a number of additional Australian marine reserves as it’s received a lot of coverage, both at home and abroad. And it seems Australians are instinctively supportive of the idea, according to recent polling results. It’s really encouraging to see high levels of support across the political spectrum. However, the recent coverage has also been accompanied by a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation. So we thought we’d try and clarify why this step is so important for our wildlife and how it’s likely to impact you as a water-loving Australian.

We’ve put together the must know points relating to the introduction of the new marine reserves which we hope will give you a better understanding of the issue. In short, it’s about protecting something that’s both unique and special to Australia. Here at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), we believe that’s something everyone can and should get behind. That’s why you might have seen this advert in The Australian (7MB PDF) by pretty much all of Australia’s environment movement, from state organisations to national and international ones, including IFAW, backing the announcement.

What’s happening?

Assuming the reserves go ahead, they will represent the world largest network of marine protected areas and push Australian marine reserves from 27 to 60 and cover about 3.1m square km - one third of Australian waters. This includes all zoning types –13% (including existing reserves) will be in highly protected marine sanctuaries, the rest in other zoning which allow some forms of extractive activities. Nonetheless, that would be quite an achievement and set a precedent for the world to follow.

Why is it important?

We all know how important national parks are for preserving unspoiled areas of our planet. Marine reserves represent the important extension of this concept to our oceans. As a nation that resides and relies so heavily on our coastline, the health of our ocean is an area where we need to be particularly attentive. There has been a bit of a misconception that this is about fisheries management. It’s not; it’s about protecting areas of the ocean that are hugely important for the survival of all sorts of marine life, like breeding, calving, spawning and feeding areas. That includes for commercially fished species but also for animals like turtles, dugongs, sharks and of course whales and dolphins.

Just as a few whale-related examples, the proposed reserves include highly protected areas such as much of the nursery for the world’s largest humpback whale population off the Kimberley coast; areas off the south coast where southern right whales come to give birth every year; parts of the Perth Canyons where blue whales feed; and small areas in Geographe Bay where blue and humpback whales rest on their migrations. However, large parts of Perth Canyon and Geographe Bay are still accessible to recreational fishers, as these are much loved spots to fish.

The reserves aim to represent the whole array of sea life and sea features found in Australia’ oceans so that these are better protected from damaging human activities and passed on to future generations in a healthy state.

Where is the network located?

The marine reserves will be located at various locations all around Australia, in addition to existing marine reserves already familiar to us, like the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo Reef. You can see the final zoning proposal here.

All federal marine reserves will begin at least 5.5 kilometres (3 nautical miles) from shore and some are located at the end of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone which is a distant 370 kilometres (200 nautical miles) offshore.

Can you enter the marine reserve network?

There are eight categories of zoning within the proposed new marine reserves. 9% of the new reserves will be highly protected sanctuary zones, the other seven zoning types will allow various forms of activities. Recreational boating and sailing will be allowed in all eight zones. As for commercial and merchant navy vessels, they are free to come and go provided they follow procedures designed to minimize environmental impact.

Will this effect fishing?

The federal reserves won’t prevent you from fishing off any jetty in Australia that you are currently able to. As the proposed federal marine reserves kick in at least 5.5 kilometres offshore, unless you’ve got a boat and a fair amount of spare time to get yourself way out to sea, you’re still free to fish until your heart’s content.

In fact, seven of the eight designated zones actually still allow all forms of recreational and commercial fishing except bottom trawling and gillnetting. By excluding these most damaging and indiscriminate forms of fishing, the government is taking steps to protect non-target species of wildlife and sea floor features in these reserve areas.

What about commercial fishermen?

The Australian government says it has aimed to locate and zone reserves to minimise the impact on commercial fishermen. That said, change always causes some turmoil and several commercial operations may be affected. To counter this, the federal government has committed a minimum of $100m to assist those affected by the introduction of marine reserves, much in the same way as previous governments did with the introduction of marine reserves in the south-east and the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Well, that’s it. We hope this has given you a better idea of the core issues surrounding the introduction of marine reserves. It’s not the final step – as my earlier post highlighted there are still some important areas in need of protection. However, it is a great step forward in helping to conserve Australia’s oceans for future generations.

As always, if you’ve got a question we haven’t covered, feel free to drop it in the comments and we’ll do our best to answer it.


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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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