Government zoning bias has put marine life at risk since 2012

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Last week Australia joined a new alliance from 40 countries pledge to protect 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030 pollution, overfishing, climate change and other environmental threats. Australia already has one of the largest networks of marine protected areas in the world, with around half of Commonwealth waters around mainland Australia in some form of protection.

Accomplished job? Actually no.

Despite the size of our protected areas, marine life continues to disappear. A government report card recently awarded the Great Barrier Reef a “D” for failing health. During this time, commercial fishing depletes non-target or non-economic species as collateral damage and damages marine habitats through trawling, the marine equivalent of clearcut forests. These questions are broad, but poorly understood.

So why this paradox? Our research analysis reveals that the size is misleading. Marine zonings vary in their effectiveness in protecting biodiversity, and zones established in 2012, 2015 and 2018 put effective protection in the wrong places.

Useless from the start

In a rich and developed country, a society’s commitment to nature conservation is measured by what it is willing to give up. In Australia, it’s not a lot.

In late 2012, Labor announced a massive increase in Commonwealth Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). But he failed to mention that the establishment of “highly protected areas” – which allow no commercial extraction – has had no effect on oil and gas activities and a very minor effect on commercial fishing.

Many commercial fishing practices, such as trawling, damage marine ecosystems.
Shutterstock

As a result, the contribution of the 2012 MPAs to conservation has been disproportionate small.

In 2015, the Federal Coalition changed the 2012 zonings. In 2018, the Coalition changed them again.

The Coalition was openly hostile to the expansion of the MPA in 2012, so it should come as no surprise that the MPA systems of 2015 and 2018 are becoming even more strongly residual – skewed towards areas with the least promise for development activities. ‘extraction.

Our recent paper tells the story in detail, but here’s a summary.

Zoning the ocean to make almost no difference

Labor’s 2012 additions to the MPA system covered 2.4 million square kilometers, an impressive figure at first glance.

Under the Coalition, the boundaries of new Labor MPAs were not changed, but significant changes were made to internal zoning, which specifies permitted uses, in 2015 and 2018.

The changes mean that highly protected areas have grown from 37% of the total MPA system in 2012 to around 22% in 2018. Other areas which allow fishing with varying restrictions, or which impose few restrictions on fishing. commercial extraction, make up the rest. The conservation benefits of these other areas – dubbed “partially protected areas” – are doubtful.

coral
Last week, a reef quality report pointed out that the marine environment around the Great Barrier Reef remains poor.
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What difference has zoning and rezoning made for marine conservation? Very little.

In fact, from the start, highly protected areas were set up without oil extraction and with a low previous fishing yield. The bias was only exaggerated in 2015 and then again in 2018.



Find out more: 75% of Australia’s marine protected areas only benefit from “partial” protection. Here’s why it’s a problem


In 2018, less than 1% of the area previously used for the Commonwealth pelagic longline fishery was protected against longline. The pelagic longline consists of setting baited hooks on lines up to kilometers long, suspended in the water. It can seriously harm non-target species, including sharks and seabirds.

Likewise, only about 1.5% of areas previously trawled in Australia became covered by no-trawl zones, a practice also known to have severe impacts on biodiversity, such as the destruction of seabed habitat.

The zoning of the Coral Sea tells part of the story. Highly protected areas 2012 carefully avoid commercial fishing in this vast high seas region, and research has shown that the conservation benefits are “minimal”. When the 2012 zones were changed, the area open to fishing methods presenting ecological risks increased further.

Is Australia really the world leader?

After the latest weakening – proposed in 2017 and formalized in 2018 – of already weak marine protection in 2012, the Federal Minister for the Environment and the Director of Parks Australia said the revisions were reaching the correct one. balance between conservation and use.



Read more: The Coral Sea: an oceanic gem that needs more protection


In terms of commercial fishing, we show the ‘balance”Was about 2% conservation and 98% use in all Commonwealth marine waters, which cover almost six million square kilometers.

In real terms, Australia’s marine protection is tiny and its unprotected marine areas are vast – a failure that has drawn international criticism. In 2017, for example, 1,286 researchers from 45 countries lambasted the federal government’s draft marine park management plans that are now in place.

Julia Gillard in front of a Labor billboard
At the end of 2012, Labor announced a massive increase in Commonwealth marine protected areas.
AAP Image / Alan Porritt

Current highly protected areas could guard against future expansion of oil extraction and commercial fishing as technologies and markets evolve. Unfortunately, however, the chances of this happening seem slim.

Australian MPA decisions since 2012 strongly suggest that, if highly protected areas are found to prevent profitable extraction, they will be downgraded or relocated so that they do not interfere.

Three ways Australia could (still) run the world

Australia dominated the world with the Rezoning of 2004 of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, a systematic exercise that has placed about a third of the park in highly protected areas. But almost 17 years later, we can see that there is a lot of room for improving marine conservation as we learn what works and what doesn’t.



Read more: The Great Barrier Reef is in trouble. There are 45 reasons why


How could Australia rule the world now? A first step would be to abandon the deception that square kilometers say something significant about conservation.

Our commitment to marine conservation will be measured by how much oil and gas we leave under the seabed, how many fish we leave in the water and how we catch others. Decarbonization and appropriate management of watersheds and coastal areas will also be essential.

A second step would be to establish explicit, quantitative and scientifically informed goals for the conservation of individual species and ecosystems in highly protected areas. The absence of such objectives made it possible to pass the zonings from 2012 to 2018 as representative of marine environments, when were not.



Read more: Humans threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Antarctic Peninsula. A marine protected area is long overdue


A third step would be to achieve explicit conservation objectives by consulting various stakeholders. This includes the co-design and co-management of coastal MPAs that empower local communities and indigenous peoples from the start, rather than through consultations late in the process.

After many years of debating MPAs, some will raise their hands to the prospect of even more planning. But that’s what’s needed to make Australia’s MPA zoning effective, along with the (recently elusive) vision and commitment needed for political leadership in true marine conservation.

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