COMMENT: Zero consultation and bungled data used in Sydney Marine Park proposal

BACK in January 2019 recreational anglers asked to be given all the recreational fishing data files used by DPI Fisheries to feed the Hawkesbury Bioregion mapping software program, Marxan.

The Marine Estate Management Authority (MEMA) was using Marxan to guide its site selection process and help deliver a Sydney Marine Park. Keep in mind some of this recreational data was collected and paid for by your recreational fishing licence fees,  and yet as recreational anglers the way it was used by DPI and shared with others was never publicly disclosed or even discussed with recreational anglers.

Despite requesting that data, it took a “GIPA” – a freedom of information request – to show how little recreational fishing was valued by the NSW Government at the time.

The Recreational Fishing Alliance of NSW (RFA) subsequently made a number of GIPA applications using its own funds.

What then transpired was a seven-month David and Goliath battle over that data that had more roadblocks and stonewalling tactics by DPI Fisheries than the RFA had even seen, but in the end the RFA got the information. Along the way a lot more was uncovered that still warrants investigation, but for now the RFA will focus on the fact that DPI Fisheries did nothing to engage or consult with recreational anglers when these maps were being generated way back in 2016. Yes that’s right, in 2016 plans were  already underway to lock anglers out of popular fishing spots, and according to DPI Fisheries, the NSW Government and Ministers were aware of this.

The GIPA uncovered a lot more than just the data and both Niall Blair and Gabriel Upton (Environment Minister) and their agencies were both responsible for the data used by Marxan. Fed with DPI and OEH (Office of Environment and Heritage) data, Marxan produced the maps that were used by MEMA as a way to try and lock us out of more than 20 fishing locations in the Sydney Bioregion. This spurred on the #StoptheLockout movement and forced then Minister Niall Blair to pull the plans even before consultation had even ended.

Not one fisher or spear fisher was asked to validate this data as far as we know, even though the Marxan program’s own Best Practice Guidelines says: “Communication is often left as an afterthought to the planning process and might involve presentation of a map with lines drawn with scant explanation. Stakeholders may then be taken by surprise”.  

As a program Marxan has worked around the world to deliver good outcomes. In all of those cases the quality of data will have determined the most balanced outcomes and if everyone has a chance to contribute, the results take no one by surprise.

The data DPI Fisheries used included various values they assigned to hundreds of locations in the region; that data was fed into Marxan and used to help create the maps, without it seems asking one recreational angler in NSW their views, nor getting the input of any of the Ministerial appointed “advisory” councils. The data DPI used was compiled in secret without talking to recreational anglers. It was sourced from outdated and Trust Funded DPI recreational surveys, talking to Fisheries officers, GPS marks in map books and websites, online forums and gut feelings, because DPI “couldn’t assign a level of importance or rank them otherwise”. Their words not ours.

The maps that follow have been generated by the RFA using the DPI data that was input into Marxan. The very data they initially refused to hand over.

In maps below, basically Red = 1 and is rated as high value to recreational anglers. Green = 0 and is of low value to recreational anglers. The first  map is from Kurnell to Manly and the lack of red areas truly indicates how little our DPI staff know about fishing in this area.


On the map below the arrow below is pointing to Cape Banks on the north head of Botany Bay, it scored the highest value and yet it was still made into a sanctuary zone by Marxan — or did someone else intervene?


And this is only the fishing data. Once OEH, under former Minister Gabriel Upton, put their data in it looks like it overrides DPI data—or they just took Cape Banks off us anyway without a whimper from DPI. The RFA has spoken to local fishing club members who have fished the area for decades and they know the biodiversity values are not special for that part of the coast, and they cannot see why this needed to happen. It has good fishing access, it is safe and popular; club members’ gut feelings were that it was more about simply cutting back fishing locations. DPI failed to seek stakeholder feedback that may indicate inadequacies or errors in the data used, and warrant revision.

DPI Fisheries has failed to widely consult and acknowledge the linkage of “people with place” which explains the strong attachment of recreational fishers to certain spots. One of the key drivers of satisfaction with recreational fishing experiences and DPI have not defended this intrinsic value on our behalf. The data that could have helped give an accurate representation of where we fish and what is important to us was never requested as recreational fishing was swept under the DPI and MEMA carpet.

In the end all that DPI achieved was marginalising and uniting the recreational fishing community in NSW. When the RFA compared the way DPI and the NSW Government ran this process against published and peer review papers on how to best use Marxan it was appalled to see how incompetent it had been at the process and the RFA wonders how much research had been done to avoid these pitfalls. Many overseas failures that are documented illustrate the consequences of ineffective involvement of stakeholders. They all have one common theme, get it wrong and in some cases it has taken six years to rebuild credibility in the community.

With all positions up for renewal on almost all Ministerial-appointed advisory councils in NSW, the RFA is hopeful that strong-willed, knowledgeable recreational and commercial fishers put their hands up for those council positions, continue to keep DPI Fisheries accountable over issues like this and drive changes to the way DPI operates. More importantly do not be afraid to engage and tell the Minister exactly what he needs to hear, not what DPI Fisheries wants you to tell him. As recreational fishers, complacency is our worse enemy and whilst we can still fish, the very same people that delivered this nightmare are still around, only the Ministers have changed. It seems the buck stops with the Minister in the end.

So do you think DPI Fisheries is pushing fishing in NSW to extinction with their own agendas and a complete lack of transparency and do we need a change or will the “NSW – closed for fishing” signs start going up?


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