Great news for the oceans
This week the government announced the creation of the world’s largest network of marine reserves in Australia’s Commonwealth waters. The plan includes some limit on oil and gas exploration – an Australian first – whilst the biggest win was for extended reef protection in the Coral Sea.
But what is a marine sanctuary?
In the new plan, marine sanctuaries are called marine national park zones, which is a pretty good description of what they do. These will be national parks for the ocean. The difference is that animals within these marine protected areas won’t be prevented from moving out of them – there are no fences in the ocean.
Oil and gas exploration, mining and fishing are prevented in marine sanctuaries. This means that whales migrating through these areas will be protected from potential human hazards, and fish can grow up without being taken by fishermen before they can breed.
Here is a blog by Tim Nicol from the Conservation Council of WA which describes the benefits of marine sanctuaries: What is a marine sanctuary?. He describes how sanctuaries protect marine life, underpin sustainable fishing and can even help reverse fish declines. Marine sanctuaries also make economic sense.
Want to see some evidence that they work in the real world? Scientists using DNA fingerprinting technology to track dispersal pathways of fish in the Great Barrier Reef have shown that exploited fish populations on neighbouring reefs could be restocked by those in marine reserves. Other recent research showed that some vulnerable species have small home ranges, thereby making them well suited to marine park protection. There are many other examples from all over the world: the Philippines, the Mediterranean, the Bahamas, New Zealand, Chile, UK, the USA… the list goes on. Dr Melissa Nursey-Bray has a great literature review with summaries of these successes.
So is this the greatest legislation ever?
No. Of course it isn’t. The introduction of Commonwealth marine sanctuaries represents a sea change in how the government views the ocean: a recognition that marine life is under unprecedented threat and that marine sanctuaries can help protect them. That the oceans are not just something to exploit, but somewhere that needs preserving for future generations, for sustainable industry, and for inherent worth in itself. Marine protection will now become a mainstream issue, alongside national parks on land.
But there were failures too. You may have noticed fishermen complaining loudly in the media about the implementation of these marine parks. They should be celebrating. 40,000 people sent in a submission during the review period for the marine parks plan; 98% of them asked for better protection than designed. Yet the plan that has been submitted has less protection than the original draft. Any fishermen that are affected will be compensated. And marine sanctuaries were not the only zones designated in the new Commonwealth plan: other zones allow a variety of different fishing and/or oil and gas exploration. Australia’s first ‘no oil zone’ covered only part of the area being considered for drilling. Many of the marine reserves implemented are too small to do enough good. Some important places have been completely left out or inadequately protected. In many ways, there is still a long way to go to get the protection our marine environment requires, and deserves.
Let’s hope this change continues to build so that Australia can become a world leader in marine conservation. With a third of the world’s national waters under its protection, that’s a title that it surely deserves, and could achieve.