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20 November 2014

Reserving the marine2

Australia's Marine Reserves

In September this year US President Barack Obama banned fishing and other commercial activities like deep-sea mining across huge tracts of the south-central Pacific Ocean. He recognised that the world's oceans are running out of time and in protecting 788 000 square kilometres he created the world's biggest oceanic marine reserve.
The White House was explicit in its reasoning for the expansion of the national park:

expanding the monument will more fully protect the deep coral reefs, seamounts, and marine ecosystems unique to this part of the world, which are also among the most vulnerable areas to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.

Of course, at just 788 000 square kilometres, this park, called the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, is only one third the combined area of the oceanic national parks the previous Labor Government added to the national system of Commonwealth marine reserves.

In protecting more than 2.3 million square kilometres, Labor delivered by far the largest representative network of marine protected areas in the world.

Proclamation of these reserves was a major achievement for the long-term conservation of Australia's oceans. It provided permanent protection to the diverse range of marine ecosystems and habitats in Commonwealth waters and the biodiversity they supported, while allowing for the sustainable use of natural resources in some areas.

Labor expanded the number of marine reserves from 27 (including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park) to 60, covering more than a third of Commonwealth waters and fulfilling the Australian Government's component of the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas.

President Obama, who has determined that ocean conservation will be a key legacy of his second term, was loudly and justifiably applauded around the world for his decision.

He received no congratulations, of course, from Australia's most redundant Government Minister, Greg Hunt, who perhaps was reflecting upon his decision in December last year to junk the comprehensive marine national park management plans that would have secured the enduring conservation and sustainable use of Australia's precious oceans.

Those plans were the culmination of more than 20 years of work that began under the Keating Government. Labor's development of Marine Bioregional Plans and the identification of the Commonwealth marine reserve network were founded upon a strong scientific information base, detailed analysis of potential socio-economic impacts and rigorous stakeholder consultation.

By secretly scrapping the plans without Parliamentary scrutiny, the Abbott Government ignored expert scientific advice and the outcomes of extensive public consultation.

Without management plans, the marine reserves are meaningless. They are merely lines on a map, reserving nothing, useful only as proof that the Abbott Government never intended to protect our marine environment.

For the foreseeable future, Australia's oceanic national parks have no management structures, no protection, no guaranteed fishing zones and no prospect of getting any of these benefits in the next few years.

And now, after 10 months of procrastination, the Abbott Government has committed to prolonging the uncertainty by launching yet another profound waste of money and time called the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Review.

Designed around a web survey, the review will be a "genuine" consultation process over 6 months, as opposed to the comprehensive, face-to-face consultation process that Labor undertook over 4 years.

Over its four years of real and serious community and industry consultation, the then Labor Government held250 public and stakeholder meetings, attended by over 2,000 people – including 138 meetings specifically with recreational fishing organisations or individual recreational fishers.

Labor enabled 210 public comment days and considered around three-quarters of a million public submissions.

Oceanic National Parks, effectively managed, are critical to marine biodiversity. They allow the whole biosphere to regenerate. The island nation of Kiribati recognised this when it announced in June the creation of a no-take zone the size of California over some of the Pacific Ocean's best tuna grounds.

Australia recognised this in 2012 when our marine parks were first declared. For the most part of 2013 an objective observer would have noted Australia's world leading carbon reduction policies and world's biggest oceanic national parks system including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve and the South-east Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network.

But clearly, that is no longer the case. Australia is not the world leader we once were. We are now hanging back, wasting time and money on needless reviews while nations as big as the US and as tiny as Kiribati take the global leadership roles we had made our own.

Beneath our waves, the clock is ticking.