'Leader to laggard': the backlash to Australia’s planned marine park cutbacks

Graham Readfearn
The Coral Sea is an area of particular concern under new management plans, where conservationists say unique coral habitats have not been given adequate levels of protection. Photograph: Daniela Dirscherl/Getty Images/WaterFrame RM

More than 35m hectares of “no-take” ocean will be stripped from Australia’s marine parks if plans released by the government go ahead, according to analysis commissioned by conservation groups.

The environment minister, Josh Frydenberg, released plans for 44 marine parks on Tuesday, claiming a “more balanced and scientific evidence-based approach to ocean protection”.

But the analysis carried out by the independent Centre for Conservation Geography (CCG), commissioned by an alliance of conservation groups, says the new plans will allow “destructive commercial fishing activities” in 37 of the 44 marine parks.

Labor moved quickly, and tabled disallowance motions against all five management plans for the marine zones in the Senate on Wednesday.

The opposition environment spokesman, Tony Burke, told Guardian Australia the new plans represented the “largest reduction in area that’s in conservation of any country in the world, ever” and the only option available was to try to block the plans and demand the government start again.

“They could voluntarily do that at any point” he said. “Are we saying it’s OK for Australia to be the worst country in the world? It seems to me bizarre that any environment minister would want that title of removing the largest area from protection.”

He said no conversations had yet taken place with the Greens or crossbench senators, but this would happen, and a further delay in implementation was easily justified. He said large areas that had been redesigned as “habitats protection zones” were “better than nothing … but they are no match for a highly protected green zone”.

The future for the 44 marine parks has been under a cloud since 2013, when the incoming Abbott government suspended the management plans that had been introduced by the former Gillard government.

A new set of proposed plans were suggested in September 2016 by an expert review commissioned by then environment minister, Greg Hunt. The review, completed in December 2015, had remained under wraps for nine months.

In July 2017, a further set of draft plans were released, sparking outrage among conservation groups over the areas that had been downgraded from no-take zones where activities such as fishing or mining are banned. The government received some 82,000 public submissions about the draft plans.

Richard Leck, head of oceans at WWF Australia, told Guardian Australia the draft plans released for consultation in July 2017 were already “completely inadequate” to protect Australia’s oceans and were a “betrayal of the scientific advice and a betrayal of the government’s own expert review”.

Referring to the new plans, he said: “This is an embarrassment to Australia’s international reputation – to have 20 years of planning and to then come up with something so inadequate. We have gone from a leader to a laggard.

“The overwhelming community and scientific concerns about the proposals from last year have not been listened to.”

Leck pointed to the Coral Sea to the east of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as one area of particular concern where, for example, he said unique coral habitats in the south had not been given adequate levels of protection.

The CCG analysis says 35m hectares of ocean previously classified as “no take” by the outgoing 2013 Labor government had been downgraded under the new plans.

The analysis says: “In the scale of the area impacted, this is similar to revoking every second Australian national park. There has never been a removal of protection for Australian wildlife on this scale since Australia’s first national park was established in 1879.”

Releasing the plans, Frydenberg said that compared with Labor’s 2013 plans, 16% more of the total park area would be open to recreational fishing and 17% more for commercial fishing. Areas open to mining had been cut by 4%.

Frydenberg said: “By being more targeted with restrictions and integrating marine park management with world-class fisheries management, we have not only increased conservation protection, but also ensured regional economies are supported.”

A key aim of marine parks is to protect and preserve examples of all unique habitats and areas of biodiversity.

The released maps show that some areas previously designated as no-take green zones were now “habitat protection zones” where the seafloor cannot be touched, but fishing is allowed.

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The CCG analysis says the new plans “leave hundreds of primary conservation features unrepresented” and 19 “entire biological regions” had been left open to fishing and other activities.

“The available scientific evidence clearly shows that fully protected marine sanctuaries are critical for the protection of marine life,” the briefing says.

“Trying to use partially protected habitat protection zones to achieve the same benefits has been explored by scientists and shown to be unsuccessful.”

In September 2017, more than 1,200 marine experts from 45 countries signed a letter of concern, which also criticised the use of habitat protection zones “the benefits of which are at best modest but more generally have been shown to be inadequate”.

Michelle Grady, director of oceans for Pew Charitable Trusts in Australia, said she welcomed the government’s move to make the marine parks operational, but said the slashing of green zones represented “the biggest single cut to protection in Australia’s history”.

Grady said: “We strongly encourage the government to review these plans because it’s a major deviation not just from the science and the consultation, but also from the strong history that the Coalition government has going back to Malcolm Fraser and John Howard, in putting in place marine protection with great foresight and long-lasting protection.”

Burke, who introduced the previous plans while environment minister in 2013, has said Labor will seek to block the plans for the 44 marine parks, spread across five zones.

“There has never been a step backwards in conservation area as large as this from any country on Earth,” Burke said.

Labor will need to gain support from the Greens and several crossbench senators in order to have enough votes to pass a disallowance motion, which must happen within 15 sitting days of the plans being tabled.