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COMMENT: Pew’s Coral Sea blunder

Late last year I wrote a Comment piece about the no compromise stance of Pew’s Imogen Zethoven over her plans to force the federal Government to ban fishing in the Coral Sea. I’d interviewed Zethoven, a veteran environmental campaigner, in Fisho’s Sydney offices and was surprised at the extreme fundamentalism of her stance regarding fishing. At the time I likened it to that of a religious zealot. She was utterly and completely uninterested in any view other than her own. It was a fascinating insight into the mind of a hard-core green activist.

Take a look at that original article HERE – it makes interesting reading when taken in the context of federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett’s statement yesterday confirming that well-managed fishing will continue to be allowed in the Coral Sea.

Personally speaking, I was fairly dubious that the federal Government would pander to Pew in totally banning fishing in the Coral Sea. There was no scientific justification to take such a draconian and politically dangerous step. Pew was relying on generating political clout via slick marketing campaigns paid for by its oil money and a lot of feel-good “motherhood” statements from a motley collection of extremist green groups, self-serving scientists and anti-fishing nutcases.

After researching the issue and talking to various bureaucrats and politicians, it seemed to me most likely that the Coral Sea would be included in the Commonwealth bioregional planning process, which clearly stated that while there would be no fishing zones in some areas, there would also be “multi use” zones where fishing would be allowed.

Peter Garrett’s statements yesterday confirm that this is what is going to happen.

As an aside, the Coral Sea already has large areas closed to fishing, with some reefs having been closed for many years. It is entirely possible no other management will be required and the Coral Sea will remain as it currently is. If this is what happens, this will be a major victory for Aussie fishos.

One of the interesting things about this whole issue is that Zethoven and Pew gambled the lot on a 100 per cent closure. They gave themselves no room to move – it was all or nothing. As it turns out, Pew lost its campaign, it lost a heap of money (which doesn’t really matter – they have plenty left thanks to Sun Oil) and it has completely lost any semblance of credibility.

Zethoven has publicly said she would not accept a decision which included fishing in any management plans for the Coral Sea. Well, so be it. The fact is the Coral Sea was doing fine before Pew poked its nose in and it will no doubt continue to do so after Pew packs up its bags and heads back to America.

There are a couple of interesting outcomes as a result of all this. The first is that governments don’t tend to take “extreme” steps unless they really have to. If, for instance, there was overwhelming scientific evidence showing that the Coral Sea was in imminent collapse because of recreational fishing pressure, then it is highly likely that Peter Garrett would have acted to do something about it. Even so, I doubt very much he would have completely banned fishing. For a government to unilaterally ban an activity which millions of Aussies enjoy is a really big step. Banning things doesn’t get you votes.

The other take home message is that groups like Pew probably aren’t as influential as they’d like you to think they are. There’s no doubt that many green issues are of mainstream concern these days but the fact is that the extreme end of the green agenda – ie, the hard-core environmentalists who are opposed to everything – make up a very small minority. They are very noisy but they represent a tiny percentage of mainstream opinion. Thus their political clout and influence is relatively limited.

Pew itself attracted criticism from other green groups for its no-compromise stance on the Coral Sea. The fact that Pew was being told it was making a mistake by its allies should have been a wake-up call to Imogen Zethoevn and other senior Pew bureaucrats. That they didn’t listen to reason puts a big question mark over their credibility and management skills.

As it turns out, the moderate and rational viewpoint put forward by RecFish Australia and some other fishing lobby groups attracted more political and public support than the extremist rhetoric espoused by Pew.

Green groups need to learn that fishos aren’t the enemy. In fact, we share many of the same concerns about our marine environment. We could work proactively together for healthier and more sustainable fisheries. But the extremist groups like Pew and the AMCS won’t have a bar of that. That no-compromise position will be to their long-term detriment.

Peter Garrett’s Coral Sea announcement is a clear indication that Australian society has rejected the anti-fishing zealotry of extremist green groups. Now is the time for real world environmentalists to step up to the plate and work with anglers for a better future. Surely that is the only way forward?

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