New marine parks are still fossil fuel playgrounds

Underwater in the Coral Sea. Photo: WWF

The federal government announced on June 14 that it would create the “world's largest network of marine reserves” in Australia. It will form 33 new marine reserves, adding to the current 27.

Conservation groups have long campaigned for more marine parks that place strict limits on what can take place in significant marine habitats. Responding to the plan, The Wilderness Society said: “It is also one of the single most significant actions that any government has ever taken to protect nature … For the first time Australia will have marine parks all around our vast island continent, not just on the Great Barrier Reef and a few bits elsewhere.”

The Australian Marine Conservation Society said: “Some critically important areas like the Coral Sea — the “Serengeti of the Seas” — will be safeguarded from damaging activities like bottom trawling, oil and gas exploration and seabed mining. The near-pristine wilderness of our tropical Coral Sea is one of the last remaining places on Earth where populations of large ocean fish and healthy coral reefs still thrive.”

But although they welcomed the new reserves, both groups said the move does not go far enough. The Wilderness Society said: “We will continue to campaign for increased protection for areas like the spectacular Rowley Shoals in Western Australia, and for Limmen Bight (internationally significant for dugongs) in the Gulf of Carpentaria, among others.”

The Australian Marine Conservation Society said: “Oil and gas exploration remain a major threat to precious marine areas like Ningaloo and the Rowley Shoals off the Western Australian coast.”

Marine reserves play an incredibly important role in protecting our oceans, helping deal with threats such as climate change, overfishing and pollution, which put fish stocks, reefs and marine habitats in danger.

A quarter of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed and two thirds are in serious trouble. Eighty five percent of global fish stocks are overfished, recovering from past overfishing or fished to their limit.

Much like national parks on land, marine parks protect biodiversity, allow species to survive and adapt to changes in the environment. They are needed to protect rare and threatened species and safeguard breeding grounds that replenish fish stocks.

The government’s proposal splits Australia into five sections. Each section has a patchwork of zones with differing levels of protection.

Marine parks give the highest protection. The most significant new marine park is the Coral Sea Reserve off the Queensland coast, which matches the length of the Great Barrier Reef but extends much further out to sea.

It will create the largest adjoining marine protected area in the world, covering 1.3 million square kilometres. The Coral Sea Reserve will be fully protected from mining and fossil fuel exploration. Commercial and recreational fishing will also be banned, but shipping and defence activities will be allowed.

The coal industry plans to boost coal exports from Queensland, with 10,000 ships a year soon expected to travel through the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea. Environmental groups and the UN have warned this could destroy the reef. But the government’s marine plan puts no restrictions on coal or gas shipping.

Areas off WA’s south-west, some parts off the Kimberley coast and areas near Cape York and Arnhem Land have also been declared marine parks or habitat protection zones.

Alongside these marine parks, many of the newly created marine reserves fall in “multiple use zones”. In these zones, some types of commercial fishing are banned, such as bottom trawling and longline fishing. But mining and oil and gas exploration are allowed.

Most of the area off the Kimberley coast will either not be covered by a marine reserve or will be deemed a multiple use zone. The plan will have no impact on the proposed liquefied natural gas plant at the Kimberley’s James Price Point.

The Commonwealth Fisheries Association said it is against the new marine reserves. Federal environment minister Tony Burke has promised $100 million to affected fishers. He said the changes would “displace approximately 1-2% of the annual value” of commercial fishing.

Although the proposed marine reserves are welcome, it is clear that the mining industry will be happy that its damaging operations will not be affected.

Fossil fuel interests are pushing to expand offshore infrastructure, such as ports and rigs. They plan to increase shipping and pollution in sensitive areas. This poses a big threat to Australia’s sensitive marine areas. But the new marine reserves plan does nothing to reign in the fossil fuel industry.