Balancing act

5 September 2016

The establishment of an Australian system of marine reserves and parks remains a contentious policy issue, a decade after the Liberal Government started the process in 1999. The Director of National Parks, Sally Barnes, is now asking for public input as she prepares new management plans for reserves in the South-west, North-west, North, Temperate East and Coral Sea marine regions.

Four years ago the Labor Government announced the establishment of the 'largest system of marine parks in the world', a move applauded by conservationists and criticised by commercial interest groups.

After winning the 2013 election, the Coalition Government promptly rejected it predecessor's 'flawed marine management plans from locking out fishers', although it retained the outer boundaries of the Commonwealth marine reserves and parks. Instead the review was to focus on the internal zoning and allowed uses within each reserve.

A new independent review of the marine park system was commissioned to develop a balanced approach towards protecting the marine environment while ensuring a sustainable seafood resource and access for recreational anglers.

Two expert panels - a Bioregional Advisory Panel chaired by Colin Buxton, and an Expert Scientific Panel chaired by Associate Professor Bob Beeton - were asked to examine the science behind marine reserves and perform extensive consultations with community groups.

According to Professor Buxton, the review found a "surprising level" of dissatisfaction with the original plan, and that the opportunity of exchanging information in multisector stakeholder forums was highly valued.

According to the now released review reports, focussing on certain problems in detail produced solutions that in some cases could strengthen both conservation and socioeconomic outcomes:

"The solutions recommended either improve conservation outcomes without substantially increasing socio-economic impacts, or improve socio-economic outcomes without unacceptable impacts on the conservation values of the reserves".

The review proposes changes to zoning and zone boundaries for 26 of the 40 new reserves declared in 2012. This would increase the proportion of high level protected areas across the reserves from 60% to 76%, and in the Coral Sea from 80% to 97%.

But the review insists that their recommendations will also substantially reduce the impacts on commercial fishers, greatly reducing the cost to taxpayers of any adjustment to affected economic interests:

"Local solutions developed in close consultation with marine users generally accommodate the interests of recreational fishers and charter and dive tourism operators."

The reports will form the basis of the draft management plan now to be prepared by the Director of National Parks. Once finalised, the plan will again be open for comments from the public.

Minister for Environment Josh Frydenberg said that while the Government would be noting the review’s recommendations, it would assess the need for any industry assistance when it finalises management plans.

"We will also consider the broader recommendations of the review, such as extending protection over the Bremer Canyon, which is renowned for its large aggregations of marine life including orcas, sperm whales, seals, sharks and giant squid."