Marine parks too long coming

 by Paul Gamblin (Originally published by The West Australian, June 20, 2012)

The connection of West Australians to the marine environment is legendary. Most of us live near the coast or visit it for work or play. There are those who also have direct or indirect economic interests in what the oceans provide.

So, for all these reasons and more, when governments propose changes in how the marine environment is to be used, it’s a big story. But it’s one where perspective is everything.

Almost a decade ago, marine sanctuaries were significantly increased in State waters at Ningaloo Reef. Few people would challenge the good sense of that decision. The same goes for the Barnett Government’s recent creation of large sanctuaries in the Camden Sound marine park in the Kimberley.

The decision last week by Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to create new parks around Australia should be seen in a similar light, in the same way the Howard government decided to increase protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

Interest in marine conservation in WA appears to be growing strongly. Numbers of submissions and supporter lists for the most recent marine park campaigns are measured in the tens of thousands, and much more at a national level. And that’s just the people who’ve formally signed up to these specific calls. The real level of support this signals is much greater. It’s a big, mainstream issue now, which is why we are seeing governments of all stripes moving on this in WA and nationally.

Strong support endures when it is secured to solid footings. The idea of marine parks makes sense and draws on sound science.

Go online to major marine science professional associations and it doesn’t take long to see this. Marine parks are a crucial part of protecting and restoring the health of the marine environment. They work alongside the careful management of fisheries and the tight regulation of oil and gas. As we have national parks on land, so we need them in the water.

Some of the heat in the public debate on marine parks stems from a crossover of two different but complementary areas of science. “Fisheries management science” is sometimes used to answer questions around “marine conservation science” and vice versa. But when these two distinct areas are applied to the questions they are designed to answer, the debate cools and becomes much more constructive.

In our science-informed proposals to government on marine parks, we try wherever possible to avoid places that are important to other users. With the Federal Government’s recent decision, most of WA’s marine area will still be open to the fishing and oil and gas sectors.

Most commercial fishers will not be affected by this decision but those who are must receive fair financial assistance. Many recreational fishers appreciate that it makes sense for some important places to be protected but most will remain open to them. Being a recreational fisher and supporting marine parks is not contradictory, which is why so many do.

Oil and gas has hardly been affected. Places such as the spectacular coral reefs of the Rowley Shoals are still threatened by industrial activity under the Government’s marine park plan — oil and gas rigs are circling. This is one area of unfinished business. There are others.

This decision has been over a decade in the making for WA, which has by far the longest coastline and the most diverse habitat of any State. It bears thinking about: off WA we have world-class tropical features, such as coral reefs and atolls of the North West, as well as the wildlife-rich cooler waters of the south coast; next stop Antarctica.

Our waters have exceptionally high levels of natural diversity. Whales, turtles, whale sharks, seabirds and other wildlife migrate along our coast. Quite simply, there is nowhere else like it on Earth. A network of marine parks will be seen as the sensible, unremarkable thing that a smart State and country does. Our grandchildren will probably look back and ask: what took you so long?

Paul Gamblin manages WWF-Australia’s national marine protected areas program

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