Marine parks abandoned by NSW government

After backlash from the fishing industry, the NSW government has abandoned plans to introduce a fishing ban at 25 new marine parks between Wollongong and Newcastle, despite the consultation process still being underway.

Greens MP Justin Field considers this proof of the “anti-science, anti-environment” government pandering to vested interests over the interests of the community, stating that the majority of Australians back protecting marine life. He received a barrage of online abuse for his stance against the plan, including physical threats.

“The network was considered too restrictive by the fishing industry and not strict enough by environment groups.”

Conversely, NSW Minister for Primary Industries, Niall Blair, describes fishing as not being “the key threat to the sustainability of our marine environment”. He says the plan “unfairly impacted on low risk activities” and stressed the need for an approach that is accepted by the community.

Marine parks have been a topic of debate for years, with back-and-forth between conservationists and the fishing industry and a yo-yo of government policy. Originally, the marine parks network was established in 2012 after decades of discussion, only to be suspended a year later. They hoped to “establish a network of protection around the entire country, encasing some of the real gems and wonders of Australia’s marine environment”, says James Caldwell, Marine Campaigner with the Australian Marine Conservation Society. The network was considered too restrictive by the fishing industry and not strict enough by environment groups. While the areas were still considered reserves, there were no actual protection measures in place.

After a lengthy review process, new management plans were finally established in July this year, which were a significant dialling back of the 2012 proposal. The recent scrapping of the proposed fishing ban is a further blow to marine protection in Australia.

The importance of marine parks cannot be overstated, especially in the face of threats of overfishing, climate change and pollution. Marine parks provide an untouched area we can look back on in years time, says Mr Caldwell, and observe any naturally occurring changes.

“Only the sanctuary zones are fully protected and many parks designated as ‘habitat protection’ allow commercial fishing.”

It’s not only the fish that benefit from the parks. According to Dave Booth, Professor in Marine Ecology from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney, “the ocean is a multi billion dollar part of Australia’s wealth”. It’s value lies across multiple industries including tourism, oil and gas, as well as fishing. Marine parks cannot only coexist with these industries; their value depends on them. “Any smart businessman knows they have to sustain their industry,” says Professor Booth.

Unfortunately, even when areas are marine parks they are not always safe. While one third of Australian waters are marine parks, only 10 per cent are fully protected, compared to the world standard of 20 to 30 per cent. What is allowed varies depending on the park and the categorisation of the zone. Only the sanctuary zones are fully protected and many parks designated as ‘habitat protection’ allow commercial fishing. Sanctuary areas are vital, working as the “engine room” of the reserve, says Mr Caldwell, allowing fish to breed to populate the rest of the area.

Furthermore, the areas that are fully protected are often unimportant with little commercial value. They are typically in deep waters, while the real threats are in shallow water, says Professor Booth. The most vulnerable areas are not getting the protection they need.

The scrapping of the fishing bans could set marine protection back years, with the benefits of sanctuary areas being accrued very slowly. “You can lose the benefits of a protected area within days, hours or weeks,” says Professor Booth, “But it takes years to get it back again.”

Mr Field states that walking away from the plan before the consultation process has ended “is a massive breach of community trust.” Consultation closes on the 27th of September, with the public being able to give their opinion on the NSW Marine Estate website until that date. Mr Blair says he is “confident there are many other ways to manage these sensitive areas that have fishers as part of the solution”.

Listen to the interview with James Caldwell here.

Listen to the interview with Professor Dave Booth here.

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