Analysis: Burke’s oceanic compromise

IN what can only be seen as an ironic twist, Tony Burke’s announcement today about the formation of the world’s biggest marine park system comes as news a foreign-owned “super-trawler” named the FV Margiris has been given the green light to rape and pillage across most of the southern half of the country (related story HERE).

WTF? Does the federal Government seriously expect any sort of environmental kudos for its marine parks plans when it allows industrial fishing operations like this free rein to exploit our waters?

The seemingly senseless juxtaposition involved with spruiking giant new marine parks while at the same time permitting a ship that drags a net 600m long to decimate our waters – not to mention also allowing gas and oil mining, plus intensive shipping, near sensitive oceanic habitats – highlights an essential flaw in the Government’s marine parks policies. The fact is the Government currently lumps recreational fishing in as being the same as industrial operations. Minister Burke today said on ABC radio that the commercial trawlers and long-liners currently operating in areas earmarked to be gazetted as federal marine parks stand to get up to $100 million in “compensation”. Although anglers are classified by Mr Burke and his Government colleagues as being essentially the same as the trawlermen and long-liners, we will get zero compensation for getting locked out. How the hell does that work?

Apart from the “super trawler” bombshell, Burke’s marine reserves announcement held no real surprises. As expected, the various zones making up the new 3.1 million square kilometre series of interconnected marine reserves are based on compromise and expediency. In other words, it’s a typical political decision.

It’s been clear for some years now that the Rudd/Gillard Government has been committed to continuing the national marine protection agenda initially started by John Howard. The big question was how far it would go. Anti-fishing groups led by the US-based Pew organisation were pushing hard for mega reserves that completely closed all waters to all fishing. Anglers and moderate environment groups presented more rational plans, with the sportfishing lobby advocating “gold” zones which removed destructive commercial operations in favour of eco-friendly C&R fishing.

The announcement today clearly shows the Government has pretty big ambitions relating to marine protection. Thankfully those ambitions don’t resemble the no-compromise lockouts advocated by Pew and its extremist cohorts. But Tony Burke obviously wants to go down in history as a serious environmental reformer. It has to be said, however, that the reformist zeal today demonstrated by our erstwhile Environment Minister has been tempered to a degree by his inherent political pragmatism. Tony Burke has released a politically savvy plan that mollifies the moderate environmentalists while not completely alienating the angling sector. Well, at least it aims to not alienate those of us who live in the major population centres along the east coast. Anglers living in these areas will be fundamentally unaffected by the federal marine parks. We won’t be spared the loving attention of the FV Margiris, though …

If you’re unfortunate enough to live in north Queensland or in southern WA you will have to adapt to large areas of your waters now being closed to you. The poor old Sandgropers will get a double-whammy in that they’ll get slapped with big marine parks while also having the FV Margiris drag its enormous net through the waters still left open.

In fairness to Minister Burke, he has for the past year or so worked diligently with angling groups in an attempt to assuage the impacts of his plans on our activities. The zoning maps he released today have small “gold” areas which allow for rec-only fishing and in the Coral Sea the maps indicate that at least some productive reef edges and drop-offs, where fish like marlin, GTs, dogtooth and so on tend to hang around, will be open for sportfishing.
While Burke should be given due credit for at least trying to work with us, the fact is there was no need for him to ban responsible rec fishing in his marine national parks in the first place. Fishing isn’t banned in terrestrial national parks, federal or state, so why should it be banned in these new marine versions?

So, where do we go from here? Most of the pundits I’ve spoken to today say the key now is to push hard to ensure the management plans – ie, the rules which will affect what can actually occur in the various zones within the new reserves – are as fisho friendly as possible. Tony Burke wants these management plans to be finalised before the next federal election, due in 2013. That will be a tight deadline.

As the peak body representing anglers, the Australian Recreational Fishing Foundation is now taking the line that the Government desist from classifying recreational fishing as being the same as commercial operations. ARFF is right when it says that it’s obvious that what we do out on the water is completely different to what industrial trawlers or long-liners do.

In effect, the way forward is quite straightforward: If the Government insists fishing is fishing, regardless of whether it’s commercial or recreational, then it should compensate Australia’s 5 million recreational anglers for the areas we stand to lose under its federal marine parks plans. If it can’t or won’t do that, then the Government should immediately reverse its decision to lock us out. If Tony Burke is fair dinkum about wanting to work with fishos, then he should do the right thing by us. So don’t lock us out, Tony! And ban that bloody “super-trawler”!

Jim Harnwell is the publisher and editor of Fishing World. He has been reporting and commenting on marine parks and fisheries issues for the past several years.

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