Australian Environment Minister Robert Hill announced plans in late September to assess the conservation value of 11 marine areas in Australian waters -- the first step toward potential designation of these sites as marine protected areas. The sites include shoals, plateaus, and canyons, as well as a blue whale aggregation site.
The main purpose of the conservation assessments will be to advise the government on whether to proceed with designating each of the sites as an MPA. Hill did not specify the likelihood that each of the 11 sites targeted for assessment would eventually receive formal MPA designation.
As required under Australia's oceans policy, the government is working to establish a national representative system of MPAs. Since launch of that policy in 1998, the government has identified five areas for designation as MPAs, with reserves already established at Macquarie Island (MPA News 1:1), Lord Howe Island (MPA News 1:7), Cartier Island, and the Tasmanian Seamounts. A fifth effort to designate a reserve in the region of Heard Island and McDonald Islands is nearing completion.
"It is time to turn our attention to addressing remaining gaps in the national system of marine protected areas," Hill said in his announcement. The forthcoming assessments will identify ecological value, threats, and potential reserve-design considerations for each site. The assessment process will take from 6 to 24 months to complete, based on the availability of biological information and the feasibility of undertaking new biological surveys.
Some of the 11 sites are described in the box at the end of this article. Hill said his agency based its choice of sites on expert scientific advice and information from representatives of the commercial fishing, petroleum industry, and conservation sectors. The assessment process will also include consultation with these parties, he said.
Tasmania releases state MPA strategy
Meanwhile, the Australian state government of Tasmania has released its state-level strategy for establishing a system of MPAs in Tasmanian waters. The document -- Tasmanian Marine Protected Areas Strategy -- features a 12-step process for identifying and selecting new MPAs. Released in August, the strategy is online at http://www.dpiwe.tas.gov.au/mpa/mpastrategy.html. Tasmania currently has five marine reserves.
Following release of the strategy, the state government announced it would fast-track the designation of two sites in particular -- Port Davey/Bathurst Harbour and the Kent Group of Islands -- which have already undergone some public consultation on designation. The government has appointed an independent umpire, the Resource Planning and Development Commission (RPDC), to oversee identification of boundaries and no-take zones at these two sites. The RPDC is required to make its recommendations to the government on the sites by July 31, 2001. (As well, the RPDC will carry out the identification and selection process for any other MPAs under the state MPA strategy.)
The Tasmanian fishing community has responded in opposition to the fast-track plan for the two sites. The Port Davey/Bathurst Harbour area represents an important safe-anchoring site in a remote and often stormy part of the state. Industry representatives have expressed concern that anchorage in the region could be curtailed, as could be their fishing while stuck there in bad weather. The state government has replied that the establishment of an MPA there will not prevent fishing vessels from entering and anchoring, unless there are specific ecological reasons.
David Llewellyn, the Tasmanian environment minister, has said that in light of potential economic displacement effects related to the designation of MPAs, the government will provide "adjustment payments" on a case-by-case basis to individuals affected negatively by new MPAs. His office has clarified that such payments would not be compensation for loss of fishing areas or potential catches. Rather, they would be to help individuals -- not necessarily fishers -- who could show two things: 1) that they had experienced a direct loss due to a new MPA and 2) that they had no alternative for recouping the loss elsewhere. Adjustment money, for example, could go to a shop or motel owner who could show that his business had declined due to a new MPA.
For more information
Leanne Wilks, Marine Group, Environment Australia, GPO Box 787, Canberra ACT 2601, Australia. Tel: +61 2 6274 1767; E-mail: leanne.wilks [at] ea.gov.au.
Doug Nicol, Marine Resources, Department of Primary Industries, Water, and Environment, Level 1, 1 Franklin Wharf, Hobart, TAS 7000, Australia. Tel: +61 3 6233 6717; E-mail: doug.nicol [at] dpiwe.tas.gov.au.
Box: Some of the sites to be assessed
- Gulf of Carpentaria seagrass beds (Northern Territory/Queensland): Unique seagrass habitat; breeding area for northern prawn fishery.
- Heywood Shoals (North Western Australia): Carbonate build-ups that rise steeply from 250-300 m to near sea surface; appear biologically rich.
- Norfolk Seamounts (Norfolk Island region): Large seamounts, expected to support a high diversity of endemic fauna.
- Eucla Canyon (Western/South Australia): steep, complex canyon system; possible deepwater upwelling that may be significant for whale feeding/calving.
- Blue whale aggregation site (South Australia/Victoria): Site of a combination of unique biota, seafloor topography and oceanic processes.
- Bass Strait sponge beds (Victoria/Tasmania): Large sponge "gardens"; largely unexplored but expected to be species-rich and high in endemism.
- Angel Bank (North Western Australia): Low-relief bank; 15 km wide and 300 km long.
- Naturaliste Plateau (South Western Plateau): Discrete deepwater plateau and terraces; in pristine condition.