Australia waters down marine protection policies

Australia wants to open up some of its marine protected areas to commercial fishing. According to conservation groups, the government’s new plans could strip more than 35 hectares of protected ocean and would have grave consequences for the Coral Sea in particular. Barbara Barkhausen reports from Sydney.

Australia is angering conservationists with its plans to open up 35 million hectares of marine protected areas to commercial fishing. (Image credit: Toby Hudson via Wikimedia Commons)

Things couldn’t have been more different back in 2012 when Australia protected one third of its marine area to create the world’s largest network of marine protected areas. Conservation groups celebrated loudly.

Move forward six years and the current conservative government now wants to water down the protections put in place back then by the Social Democrats.

Coral Sea in jeopardy

More than 35 million hectares of “no-take” ocean will now be reopened to the fishing industry, according to an analysis of the government’s plans carried out by conservation organizations. The environmentalists are especially concerned for the reefs located in the Coral Sea between Australia, New Guinea, the Salomon Islands and Vanuatu.

The environment minister, John Frydenberg, described his plans last month as a “more balanced and scientific evidence-based approach to ocean protection”.

But according to the analysis from the Centres for Conservation Geography (CCG), the new plans – if pushed through against the opposition’s will – would allow “destructive commercial fishing activities” in 37 of the 44 marine parks.

“From leader to laggard”

Opposition member Tony Burke told Guardian Australia that the new plans represented the “largest reduction in area that’s in conservation of any country in the world, ever”. Criticism also came from the nature conservation organization WWF.

Referring to the new plans, WWF Australia’s Richard Leck said they take the country “from a leader to a laggard”.

According to WWF, the Coral Sea would be worst affected by the government’s plans. Back in September it wrote that the total area of marine reserves open to fishing could increase from 64 per cent to 80 per cent, while green zones – which afford a high level of protection – would be nearly halved, going from 36 per cent to 20 per cent.

Serengeti of the Seas

Australia’s Coral Sea, which is part of the Pacific Ocean, is often described as the Serengeti of the Seas. Located off Australia’s northeast coast, it is considered one of the last few pristine ecosystems in the world and a biodiversity hotspot.

The sea, which was named by British captain Matthew Flinders who explored the region in 1803, is home to over 300 endangered species.

At least 28 species of whales and dolphins live in these waters, some in pods of up to 400 animals. It is also one of the few regions in the world where sharks, tunas, marlin, swordfish and sailfish are not completely overfished.

The Coral Sea also contains 49 different habitats, including coral reefs and deep sea canyons.


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