Commonwealth Marine Reserves Review
In 2012, the Australian government revealed plans to create the world's largest marine reserve network, made up of five main zones in offshore waters surrounding every state and territory.
The number of marine reserves off the Australian coast would increase from 27 to 60 and would cover 3,100,000 km2 of ocean including the entire Coral Sea. The planned expansion of the reserves continued the bipartisan work of successive administrations, beginning with the oceans policy of the Howard Government in 1998.
However, the plans were met with criticism by commercial and recreational fishers and, following an election promise, the Abbott Government suspended the new marine parks and sanctuaries in 2013 and commissioned a review for the 40 reserves that were established in November 2012. A lengthy and costly review commenced leaving offshore sanctuaries unprotected.
Following the review, an alternative management plan was developed and came into effect on 1 July 2018.
Compared to Labor's Plan, marine protection is reduced. All up, analysis from a coalition of conservation groups says about 35 million hectares of green zones have been lost from Labor’s original plans.
The Ocean Science Council of Australia (OSCA) – a network of leading marine researchers and scientists – said the plan was a “significant step backwards” from Labor’s, and was “inconsistent with the Australian Government’s commitment to evidence-based marine management.”
Prof Jessica Meeuwig, Director of the Marine Futures Lab at the University of Western Australia and an OSCA member, agrees the plans presented by the Labor government in 2012 were “marginal”. But, she says, there was an acceptance among scientists that they were good enough as a starting point from which to push for improvements later. “In 2012 we sort of accepted that while they were marginal, there was room to improve them. These [the Coalitian's] plans are so bad that this is no longer the case. The idea that this is the best we can do is rubbish – in 2012, all the stakeholders were on board.”
Meeuwig argues there is a further risk to accepting the Turnbull government’s plans. Once the plans are in place, she says there will be a major effort from researchers to look at the impact of the “no take” green zones on the biodiversity in those areas. But, because those green zones have been cut and fragmented, there is a danger that scientific reviews could conclude the green zones are ineffective when they have been essentially compromised. “What we’ll have then, is an argument that green zones don’t work when of course the science shows they do,” she says.
Peter Cochrane, a member the Abbott Government's commissioned expert scientific review panel, admits that after the draft management plans were released in 2017, there were “some areas of significant difference” from the panel’s recommendations. He said the largest areas of departures from what had been recommended, and what was proposed, was in the Coral Sea. In the Coral Sea Marine Park, yellow zones which allow fishing increased from 29 per cent under Labor's Plan to 69 per cent, while the more restrictive green zones reduced from 50 per cent to only 24 per cent.
“My understanding is that [after the review was submitted] the politics came to bear and that produced the result we saw in the draft plans.”
“We thought we had done the best job in terms of the science and the balance of interests. There certainly was a reduction [in areas of higher protection] from what we had recommended and to that extent that departure was inconsistent with what we recommended.”