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GBRMPA bans artificial reefs and FADs

Ideology n. “Manner of thinking characteristic of a class or individual. Ideas at the basis of some economic or political theory or system.”

This column has been started with a definition, so readers can identify when and how the defined word relates to the following topic. Now to some acronyms. This column relates to recent developments that have resulted in a ban on deployment of Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs) and artificial reefs (ARs) within the entire Great Barrier Reef (GBR) region along a substantial proportion of the coastline of central and northern Queensland (QLD). The decision to enact the ban has been made by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA). 

I was alerted to this issue recently by concerned colleagues working in Western Australia. Why concern from WA? Because GBRMPA is a marine park management entity controlled by the Federal Government. As it turns out, scientists and managers who work on ARs and FADs in WA and other States like NSW are very concerned that the decision to prohibit these structures in the GBRMP region will have flow-on effects in their jurisdictions which will affect the future prospects of deployment of ARs and FADs in all other Commonwealth managed waters (between 3 and 200 nautical miles offshore).  

Fair enough too, because this concern is by no means baseless. The “Commonwealth Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water” (DCCEEW, what a mouthful, eew! indeed) is apparently developing guidelines on ARs and FADs in Commonwealth waters, and also holds sway over State waters too via Section 19 of the Environmental Protection (Sea Dumping) Act 1981.  I have been reliably informed that their draft guidelines currently propose that both types of structure should not be allowed within 10 km of the outer boundary of any marine park.  Just think about that for a moment before we carry on.  Remember, Commonwealth managed waters start just 3 nm (less than 6 km) offshore, while the Sea Dumping Act relates to all Australian waters. No wonder the other States are worried. Indeed, everyone should be worried.

This issue in QLD appears to date back to October 2020 when GBRMPA put in place a moratorium and “Interim policy position” that no FADs or ARs would be deployed within the marine park, pending a scientific review designed to inform a final policy position. Well, that review has been completed and the policy outcomes have been declared as follows:  GBRMPA have chosen not to budge from their interim position that “prohibits fish aggregating devices (FAD) and artificial reefs, and any combination thereof, in the Marine Park.

Before we look into the ramifications of this decision in more detail, perhaps it is instructive to consider what other development activities are still allowed to occur in the GBRMP.  One of the permitted activities still allowed in General Use (light blue), Habitat Protection (dark blue) and Conservation Park (yellow) zones (where angling by line fishing occurs) is aquaculture development.  Another activity that is also allowed in the same zones is disposal of dredge spoil.  Channel markers, beacons and other marine navigation devices can also be deployed, as well as jetties and other marine infrastructure. All pending the relevant approvals, of course.

So GRBRMPA will permit aquaculture discharge, marine infrastructure, and disposal of potentially toxic dredge spoil into areas that remain open to fishing.  But no artificial reefs or FADs. As someone who personally investigated the shambles involving diseased marine life following the inappropriate disposal and dumping of dredge spoil into the GBRMP during the development of liquid Natural Gas (LNG) terminals in Gladstone Harbour in 2011-12, this is a particularly ironic (perhaps moronic?) inconsistency.

GBRMPA documentation reveals that the main objective of their Marine Park Act is “to provide for the long term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region”. Given that properly designed, located and managed artificial reefs are scientifically proven to improve fish productivity (and therefore can be used to deflect fishing pressure away from threatened natural reefs), why are they not being considered an appropriate tool to help with “protection and conservation of the environment”?

The exclusion of FADs from a marine park might be justifiable if you have a commercial tuna purse seine fleet targeting them in a country without fisheries management. This would be because FADs are recognised as mainly aggregating sites for most fish species. Nevertheless, FADs can still be useful for improving productivity and overall numbers of certain species that recruit only to floating habitat (e.g. mahi mahi), thus providing alternative fishing opportunities where floating habitat is lacking. Indeed, this is exactly why they have been deployed in southern QLD to try to get anglers to “switch their fish” from more threatened slow growing reef dwelling demersal species like snapper and pearl perch to the highly productive, fast growing mahi mahi. And very successful this strategy has been, too. 

But this management option is no longer available along the majority of the QLD coast, with the decision to ban FADs appearing to hinge mainly upon a perceived inability to control fishing pressure around them. But hang on, isn’t fisheries management supposed to be the responsibility of State Fisheries departments? Is this decision to exclude FADs from the GBRMP (and therefore based on precedent, potentially all other marine parks in Commonwealth waters) based on a lack of knowledge of how fisheries management works in Australia? Especially when they seemingly can’t tell the difference between purse seining for tuna and catch and release of a bonefish on a reef flat.

Similarly, the review cited the anti-artificial reef position was due to “potential detrimental negative impacts, such as attracting fish away from natural habitats and providing stepping-stones for invasive species, as well as increased management requirements associated with activities around artificial structures”. Indeed, GBRMPA stated that “The greatest negative impact stems from a likelihood of poor management and compliance, leading to user conflict and overuse. There are also likely biodiversity negative impacts of overfishing, the spread of invasive species and the replacement of soft sediment habitats.”

Isn’t it a bit ironic that a marine parks authority, established to manage our marine estate, cites their own management failure as one of their main excuses to exclude ARs and FADs from their jurisdiction? Of course, their allegations that ARs will somehow denude natural reefs of fish is on extremely shaky scientific ground, as are their chances of managing any invasive species which enters the GBR region. Indeed, strategically located artificial reefs are more likely to provide refugia for coral propagules to allow southward movement of certain coral species under a climate change scenario. Furthermore, any competent marine scientist should know that artificial reefs can produce many, many more fish than they aggregate by kick starting the food chain and providing additional habitat that is simply not there naturally. Thus they can be used to enhance or restore damaged or unproductive habitat. And since when has there been a shortage of unproductive soft muddy sediments inshore along the QLD coast? Why deprive the GBRMPA management toolbox of such valuable and versatile management tools?

At face value, all GBRMPA have done here is set an unfortunate precedent for the rest of Australia.  But not only that, they have also painted themselves into a corner which should also theoretically prevent deployment of any artificial structure within the marine park, including jetties, pontoons navigational structures and so on, because these will attract fish too. And what about renewable energy structures? Are GBRMPA going to prevent access to offshore wind energy, or wave energy reefs or floating energy structures along most of the QLD coast? You know, those adaptive forward thinking measures that could help address climate change, which all studies show is the real underlying threat to the very fabric of the entire GBR.  

Offshore renewable energy infrastructure, done properly, could become the greatest artificial reef projects ever implemented, especially if fishos are allowed to access them. But GBRMPA appear determined not to have any “win-win” situations on their watch.  Indeed, “lose-lose” situations are the outcomes almost inevitably associated with ideological decision-making based on cherry-picked science.   

Remember, the main objective of the Marine Park Act is “to provide for the long term protection and conservation of the environment, biodiversity and heritage values of the Great Barrier Reef Region”. In the rapidly changing real world, we need science based management approaches which embrace conservation while allowing adaptation to change. What we don’t need is an unsustainable, anti-fishing, preservation focussed ideology that is guaranteed to fail under the pressure of human population growth and climate change.  

Charles Darwin was right when he identified the phenomena of evolution by adaptation and natural selection. That is how animals and ecosystems adapt and survive in a changing world. Yet GBRMPA and the DCCEEW under the current Federal Labor Government seem to think they can preserve the GBR exactly as it once was. And they are attempting to do this while providing multiple disincentives for the wider community to assist them in addressing the real underlying issues that will inevitably drive the very changes GBRMPA fear the most.  

Of course, there is a slim chance that renewable energy infrastructure may one day be allowed in the GBR marine park. But if that day happens and artificial reefs remain banned, Aussie fishers will have experienced first-hand a true working example of not only the word ideology, but also the word discrimination.   

Discrimination v. “Make a distinction, especially unjustly on grounds of race or colour or sex. Select for unfavourable treatment

The GBRMPA artificial reef and FAD review can be found at: 

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