ENVIRONMENT: Marine park spillover

Image: Scott Thomas

FOR 20 years or more the most contentious and polarising issue for rec fishers in Australia would have to have been the establishment of marine protected areas and the exclusion of fishers from all or parts of these areas.

It’s largely been a battle of claims and counter claims. Advocates of the international standard of 30% of ocean waters being given protective status argue that it’s got to be all or nothing. No mining, no exploration, no commercial fishing, and no rec fishing.

Opponents argue that the effects of doing this on the economy are too extreme, particularly the miners, extractive industry folk and their political allies and supporters. They mount similar arguments to those used in opposition to climate change abatement initiatives. How much clout they have depends on how sympathetic the government of the day and its responsible ministers are to both their arguments and electoral consequences. Keeping the miners happy risks even more Teals being elected to Australia’s parliaments as voters become increasingly environmentally conscious.

Commercial fishers argue on both the economic costs of exclusion and the more emotive claim of disruption to their lifestyles. They say exports will decline, local fish available to Australians will be reduced, we’ll end up eating more inferior imports and they’ll be forced to quit the only jobs they’ve ever done.

Rec fishers appear to be really split on the issue. Some totally accept the need for marine refuges where no fishing at all occurs to allow for stock rebuilding. Others argue the total opposite. They say rec fishing has minimal impact, particularly in an era of catch & release. Some peak groups have mounted vocal anti-marine protected area campaigns, with varying degrees of success. Under the last federal Coalition, the level of protection in nearly 30 marine park areas was downgraded from what was initially proposed via management plans approved in 2013. Whether the new Labor government goes back to the earlier proposals remains to be seen.

One key point of contention between supporters and opponents have been the effect of spillover. Supporters argue that giving populations time to recover undisturbed in protected areas results in much healthier populations in areas abutting. Opponents have argued that there aren’t conclusive studies to support this, only small-scale results in local areas. But the ABC recently reported on a major study where researchers compared catch rates outside the world’s largest marine protected area off Hawaii, expanded to 1.5 million square kilometres in 2016. There’s no fishing at all allowed in this marine park. The study showed yellowfin tuna catch rates up by 60% within 100 nautical miles of the boundary and increases in a range of other species, such as bigeye tuna. The results, published in Science magazine, will no doubt be closely scrutinised by our environment bureaucrats as Minister Plibersek recommits to 30% protection of our waters by 2030.

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