IMOGEN ZETHOVEN. Trashing our Global Ocean Leadership.

Australia was once a global leader in marine protection. Today, we have fallen spectacularly from grace. The Commonwealth marine park plans tabled recently in federal Parliament represent a triumph for the oil, gas and fishing industries and a massive backward step for our threatened oceans.

We live on a blue planet. The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface. Most of our planet’s biodiversity lives in the ocean. Yet the global ocean is no longer the infinite resource it was once perceived to be. Industrial scale overfishing has depleted the world’s ocean of ninety percent of its large ocean fish – tuna, sharks and billfish. Marine plastics are polluting the ocean. At current rates, there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050.  Global warming is changing the chemistry of the ocean, making it more acidic. Over the previous three years, a global marine heatwave destroyed vast areas of the world’s coral reefs, including 50% of the shallow water corals in our Great Barrier Reef.  

Yet with all these threats, protection of the global ocean has lagged well behind protection on land, reflecting the different relationship we have with the sea. While the concept of national parks took hold around the world, very few were established offshore. The declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975 was an outstanding exception. Its vast scale was unparalleled. Right from the start, oil and gas extraction was banned, however even up to the early 2000s, fishing was allowed in more than 95% of the Park. The Howard government changed that in 2004 when it protected one-third of the Park from fishing. This was another extraordinary step forwards for global ocean conservation. Conservationists and marine park managers around the world applauded the move and once again looked to Australia as a beacon of marine protection.   

During the Howard years under the environmental leadership of Senator Robert Hill, Australia introduced the world’s first national oceans policy and committed to introducing a national network of Commonwealth marine parks throughout our Exclusive Economic Zone. The South East Marine Reserves Network off Victoria and Tasmania was the first of the plans. Conservationists and scientists found the level of protection in the plan very disappointing and hoped for a much more effective outcome in the other marine regions of Australia.  

Hopes were high in 2007 when the Rudd government was elected. Conservation groups proposed a visionary plan for a very large fully protected sanctuary zone in the Coral Sea, between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and our EEZ boundary with New Caledonia, Solomon Island and Papua New Guinea. Australia’s Coral Sea is one of the few relatively intact tropical marine ecosystems left in the global ocean, recognised for its diversity of large ocean fish. It’s no wonder it has been called the Serengeti of the Seas. Environment Minister Peter Garrett was inspired by the idea of a vast ocean sanctuary, big enough to protect most of the life cycle of large pelagic fish. He declared a Conservation Zone over the entire area. 

On the other side of the continent, conservation groups proposed an interconnected network of sanctuary zones in the South West marine region, extending from Kalbarri in WA to Kangaroo Island in SA. Up to 90% of marine life in this region is found nowhere else in the world. In both the South West and the Coral Sea, less than 1% of the marine environment is protected. Conservation groups also proposed networks for the North West, North and Temperate East regions. 

Garrett’s Conservation Zone, was an interim measure until the Coral Sea Marine Park was formally established. Tony Burke became Rudd’s next Environment Minister. He too was inspired by the Coral Sea, which he called the “jewel in the crown” of the national marine network. Several rounds of consultation took place with hundreds of thousands of supportive submissions and on 17 November 2012, the ‘final’ network of Commonwealth marine parks was proclaimed. 

The next step was to draft management plans for each of the regions, giving legal effect to the zoning schemes. The final plans were tabled in Parliament in 2013. As these were disallowable instruments, they could be voted down.  The plans survived the House. But before 15 sitting days could pass in the Senate, Rudd announced a federal election. 

On the first Parliamentary sitting day of the Abbot government, the management plans were withdrawn. Abbot had promised to review them, a word that sounded innocuous enough but it was clear he planned to slash them. Four years later, the so-called scientific review recommended the level of no-take protection in the marine parks be reduced from 36% to 20%. 

Then on March 20th this year, the Turnbull government released the final management plans. Incredibly, the level of protection was dramatically reduced again. Opposition Environment Minister Tony Burke expressed outrage: “It’s the largest removal of area from conservation ever from any government in the world. In the Coral Sea, long lining and trawling is now allowed from north to south.” Six days later, the government brought on a vote to disallow its own regulations – a highly unusual move, but one the government knew it was going to win. Labor and the Greens voted to disallow the plans and the vote was lost. However, there hope is not lost. 

Labor and the Greens have tabled five disallowance motions, instead of the one for all five regions. There remains hope that the crossbench may vote down at least some of the plans. The Coral Sea stands out as the region suffering the biggest wind back, with the single large sanctuary zone gutted. 

It is to be hoped that this shameful episode in the Coalition’s formerly proud history of marine protection will pass. But at the moment it appears the only way forward is to disallow Minister Frydenberg’s plans and to go back to the plans that were announced in 2012 by Tony Burke. That provides a reasonable starting point for protection of Australia’s oceans. 

Imogen Zethoven is an Australian environmentalist who led the campaign to protect the Coral Sea from 2007 to 2013 and currently leads a campaign to protect the Great Barrier Reef for the Australian Marine Conservation Society. @ImogenZethoven

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