Massive new marine reserves, but are they phoney?

Blogger picture

By Bob Pressey, Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

“Australia’s precious marine environments have been permanently protected with the proclamation of the world’s biggest network of marine reserves.”

That’s how the federal government describes the recent creation of marine reserves covering 2.3 million square kilometers of ocean, a decision which made the news worldwide. But is it accurate?

What if the reserves were designed to minimize impact on commercial and recreational fishing and the oil and gas industries, and therefore minimize real protection for marine biodiversity? The government may be simply taking its policy of reserving also-ran, non-commercial tracts of land and applying it to the ocean.

For the casual observer, the map of Australia’s marine reserves might cause delight or alarm. People concerned about the future of marine biodiversity might feel the big new reserves will secure the future of species and ecosystems. Those interested in commercial or recreational fishing, or offshore oil and gas development, could be concerned about these reserves. But both reactions may be misplaced.

With the planet’s, and Australia’s, biodiversity in decline, protected areas — tracts of land or sea where extractive uses such as clearing, trawling, logging and long-lining are excluded or greatly reduced in impact — are crucial. But not all protected areas are as effective as they should be. On land, most are in the wrong places. They are “residual” in being concentrated in areas with the least promise for commercial land uses, to minimize financial and political costs.

This widespread tendency leaves those species and ecosystems most exposed to past and impending threats to languish outside reserves while formal “protection” is given to areas that were de facto protected by lack of suitability for commercial uses. The government is now repeating this pattern of residual reservation in Australia’s very extensive marine waters. It becomes apparent looking at the map:

Australia’s network of Commonwealth marine reserves — click to enlarge

Zones show activities that are allowed or prohibited. Look at the green zones — these are categorised under the World Conservation Union’s system as “Ia” or “II”, providing the most complete protection. The green zones prohibit fishing of any kind and exploration or development for mining.

But the locations suggest their effectiveness for biodiversity conservation might be limited. They have mostly been placed as far as possible from shore, so are concentrated at the outer edges of Australia’s marine jurisdiction. Our more detailed analyzes confirm four things about the green zones:

  • They are concentrated in deeper waters off the continent shelf, well away from most marine activities
  • They offer little or no protection to many of the 41 provincial bioregions that define Australia’s marine biodiversity
  • They overlap minimally with areas for recreational or commercial fishing
  • They do not overlap at all with areas being explored or developed for oil and gas.

The other zones (yellow and blue zones) generally offer much less protection for marine biodiversity. Although most of these other zones prohibit the use of bottom gear, including demersal trawling, it is unclear to what extent this gear was being used in these areas beforehand. In the bulk of Australian waters outside marine reserves, protection for marine biodiversity is minimal.

The newly announced reserves therefore don’t greatly diminish the threats to Australia’s marine biodiversity that come from fishing. The impacts of fishing include direct take of species of concern and the consequent major reduction in all life stages in their populations, habitat modification from bottom trawling, bycatch from longlining, trawling and other netting methods such as gillnetting and purse-seining.

Bycatch includes turtles, dugongs, sharks and other fish, and invertebrates. Some of these are of national and international conservation concern. Bycatch rates are typically high. The northern prawn fishery is perhaps an extreme example. This fishery targets nine commercial species, but is known to catch 788 species, of which about 650 are thrown back dead.

The reserves have no effect at all on exploration and development of marine reserves of oil and gas. The activities related to oil and gas include seabed structures, acoustic surveys, drilling, greatly increased movements of ships, coastal infrastructure, dredging and disposal of dredge spoil. The impacts on marine biodiversity, including ship strikes on large mammals and turtles, and risks from accidents and spills, are poorly understood.

Even the dramatic Montara oil spill of August 2009 off the north-west coast faded from media attention when the surface slick was dispersed, while scientists can only speculate on its effects on species in the water column and on the seabed where traces of oil and dispersants were found up to 70 kilometers from the well head.

The overall conclusion is that the new marine reserves, and the ones established in 2007, have little effect on business as usual. Indeed, this was a major goal of the planning exercise. The media release indicates that “the new marine reserves have been designed in a way to minimize impacts on industry and recreational users”.

It’s worth asking then what Australia’s marine biodiversity is being protected from. The most comprehensive “protection” in this new process, in the green zones, has been given to areas that least needed protection.Nationally, and in most Australian marine regions, the conservation gains, despite the very extensive new reserves, have been small. One notable exception is the Coral Sea where the very large, if far offshore, green zone has been combined with large areas of IUCN category IV zones that prohibit the most destructive fishing methods. This combination makes the Coral Sea, for many species, a vast and secure marine wilderness — at least while the zonings stand.

Other important questions remain unanswered. In 1998, the government committed to creating a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas by 2012. Is this what the government meant? The media release seems to indicate that it is.

An obvious problem is that the network is not representative, even at the coarsest level of provincial bioregions. At finer levels of definition, many elements of marine biodiversity will have fallen through the gaps or occur only in the partial and inadequate protection of multiple-use zones. So what are the prospects for these unprotected features still subject to the effects of fishing and exploration and development for oil and gas?

Another key question is why the government chose not to build on the world-leading foundation of the 2004 rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The exercise defined explicit, quantitative objectives for each of its 70 finely subdivided marine bioregions, in keeping with world’s best practice in systematic conservation planning, a field of research pioneered in Australia. The process of designing the 2012 marine reserves was a significant step backward from 2004, avoiding quantitative objectives, perhaps to allow maximum scope to work around commercial interests.

A final question concerns the value of the government’s meeting the 2012 deadline of “completing” the marine reserve network. Getting it wrong in 2012 means that the species and ecosystems most vulnerable to fishing and extraction of oil and gas remain vulnerable. Putting the green zones as far from shore as possible will significantly increase their management costs. And getting it wrong with more than a third of Commonwealth waters in some form of marine protected area means that prolonged and fierce resistance awaits any attempts to add marine reserves that are actually effective.

Forgetting about an arbitrary, politically motivated deadline and waiting several more years to get it right would have been a better investment in the future of Australia’s marine environment.

Bob Pressey is a Distinguished Professor with the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland, where he leads the research program on conservation planning.

This piece originally appeared on Crikey on 7 December 2012


The flawed nature of the network of marive reserves, is supported by the following example form the Coral Sea Reseve There, most of the destructive pelagic longline fishing (Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery) is retained within a Habitat Protection Zone (Seamount), Habitat Protection Zone (Coral Sea) and a General Use Zone. The ETBF is incompatible with the values intended to be preserved by the Reserve. An estimate of the annual catch in the ETBF fishery for sharks and protected species is as follows: Sharks total 5740 Protected species Shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus)51 Turtle spp. 23 Seabird spp.4 Mammal spp.4 Ironically much of the ETBF is inherently unprofitable and ripe for removal. But given the integrated nature of the ETBF fishery with processing and export its removal would still be quite expensive. The commonwealth baulks at this because it wants the reserves at minimum cost. Unfortunately this means the conservation benefits will also be minimal.

Is that the same Northern Prawn fishery that was recently certified sustainable by the MSC? Seems strange that the view on that fishery expressed here and theirs would be so clearly opposed?

It seems less strange when you look at the information provided by MSC itself. Here's a link to the public report on the fishery concerned: You'll see on p. 57 the following section: For the ecological risk assessment CSIRO conducted a scoping exercise involving review of literature, logbooks and observer reports, and discussions with stakeholders to identify all species potentially impacted by the NPF. The resulting list contained 788 species: 9 target, 135 retained, 516 bycatch, and 128 TEP (Threatened, Endangered, Protected; note that these are additional to the generic "bycatch"). This risk assessment noted that the NPF estimates total annual biomass of bycatch at approximately 30,000 t as compared to 5,686 t of target species catch and 74 t of byproduct (2004 values). Aside from those individuals excluded by the TEDs and BRDs, most bycatch is usually returned to the water severely damaged or dead. The ecological impacts arising from the high diversity and large amount of bycatch relative to the target and retained catch have been addressed by the NPF through the ecological risk assessment process which is described below for retained, bycatch and TEP species. The ecological risk assessment has deemed that none of the bycatch species are impacted by the fishery unless they go below 20% of their estimated pre-fished biomass. As you can imagine, estimates of pre-fished biomass for many species will be difficult to get right. There has been no serious attempt to consider trophic or other ecological interactions amongst the species, many of which are likely to be heavily depleted locally. There has been no serious attempt to apply any realistic precaution. The dominant drivers for change in the fishery have been the EPBC Act species such as turtles. It's obvious that the bycatch impacts are extensive and it's difficult to see how 30,000 t of bycatch annually justifies buying prawns from this source and feeling OK about eating them.

Hi Bob, it's always a balancing act --protecting what is more-or-less pristine with what is already harmed. From your analysis, it appears that the balance has not been met. Aus was a pioneer in codification of "representativity" (CAR and so forth) and so I am little surprised to learn that these new areas were not checked against that most Australian of criteria. Protecting places nobody wants has indeed a long history, and you have published some of the key studies. But, I would argue that the "rock and ice" of the terrestrial environment is not quite so bleak in the marine realm --those offshore and deep sea places where indeed there is considerable biodiversity, much of it fragile to human exploitation. Give us a few more years, and I expect those areas would also be fished, or at least someone would try. And in the process of trying (dragging a tonne or so of net, doors, and rollers) a lot of damage could be done. Are not these MPAs averting that sort of harm? I agree that areas under threat should also have been considered, but does that mean that there is no value at all in what has been protected? Or, should we instead point out that the balance has not yet been met, and in particular, that the network is not, as of yet, representative? All the best, Jeff

Thanks Jeff. For brevity, I would make two points only. First representation can be a trap if considered alone. Is it good that we add 25 new marine habitats to our MPA system? That depends if they are the 25 that most urgently need protection, or simply the 25 that were easiest to protect. It's usually the latter. This trap has sprung many times on land, and is now doing the same in the sea. The implication? That marine biodiversity that urgently needs protection is left to languish without it. Second point: We can always argue that remote, currently unused areas should be reserved in case someone develops the means to exploit them. And history shows that can be correct. What has never been documented is the irreversible opportunity cost of walking away from currently or imminently threatened areas to give ourselves some insurance for the future. If we're going to justify that, then we should be able to show explicitly that biodiversity will be better off in the long-term. I'm not aware of any such assessment. I am aware, however, that politicians play chess with nature knowing they can sell hectares to a largely undiscerning electorate.

Add new comment

Sign-in with your OpenChannels Member Account and sign-up for email notifications of new blogs. Simply visit any blog post and click the "Subscribe to updates of new content of this type" link just above the comments section.