OPINION: Feds lay up for the Greens

IF you are the kind of person who believes Caddyshack was a golf documentary, then you might also accept that the federal Labor Government’s announcement of 44 new marine parks was driven by environmental imperatives. Because Environment Minister Tony Burke’s claims that the health of the ocean was his only concern are as far removed from reality as Carl Spackler’s battles with a rogue gopher.

The truth is that recreational anglers have been flipped the bird(ie) by Labor in a desperate bid to curry favour with green voters and keep its powerful partners in the Greens Party happy.

At the business end of a shambolic consultation process that would make you laugh if you didn’t want to cry, the most comedic aspect of the announcement, which means Australia will have more than 70 per cent of the world’s marine parks, was the closure of an area to fishing at the Rottnest Trench, which they like to call the Perth Canyon.

Burke defended the lockout at the Trench, which followed concerted pressure from environmental groups often funded by overseas interests such as the rich Pew Charitable Trusts (a US-based environmental foundation set up by an oil company), by saying it was the equivalent of the Grand Canyon and demanded similar protection.
Never mind that one is 20-odd miles offshore, covered by hundreds of metres of water and virtually inaccessible to almost everyone, unlike the tourist mecca that is the Grand Canyon, which gets millions of visitors each year.

This decision, Burke said, was based on the need to protect the feeding grounds of the pygmy blue whales that visit the area occasionally. I am not aware of any evidence of interaction, ever, between recreational anglers and pygmy blue whales at the Rottnest Trench.

In fact, most recreational fishing activity at the Trench involves trolling in the top few metres of water often more than 500m deep for pelagic fish passing through the area, such as marlin. This occurs for just a few months a year, is almost exclusively a catch and release fishery that involves no resource extraction, and offers a huge economic return per fish caught – sounds like the modern perfect fishery to me and yet some people want it banned. One can only wonder what impact the naval exercises that will no doubt continue at the Trench have on these whales.

It’s comedy gold that should have anyone who fishes seriously considering how they vote at the next Federal Election, with the Federal Liberal Party immediately vowing to apply a science-based review of the marine parks if it gets into power.

Perth Game Fishing Club secretary Peter Coote slammed the decision on the Trench.
“PGFC is extremely disappointed that contrary to earlier indications there has been a Marine National Park of some 70 square kilometres proclaimed in the middle of the Rottnest Trench (Perth Canyon). Fish species caught in this area are pelagic (highly mobile) and placing boundaries on the area in which they can be sought will have absolutely no impact on any species of fish or mammal that passes through the area which incidentally remains a high use commercial shipping lane,” he said.

“In what is clearly an ideologically-based decision responsible recreational anglers have been excluded from a highly valued recreational fishery where they pose no threat to anything. So called scientific evidence, previously provided by the Commonwealth, was shown to be flawed, but the Minister has pressed ahead regardless with a fishing closure in the middle of one of the Western Australia’s few blue marlin grounds.”

Never one to consider the needs of others ahead of blinkered ideology, conservation groups were quick to warn it was just the beginning and that further closures would be needed. On the other side of the world, Pew’s Jay Nelson trumpeted a major victory from his office in Alaska.

“I have some very good news,” he said.

“This was our third successful project since the inception of Global Ocean Legacy.

“I´m also pleased to report that our Pew Environment Group colleagues … were successful.”

Remember also that these new parks only cover Commonwealth waters, more than three nautical miles offshore, with further announcements to come for State waters inshore of that line. The conservation groups and Burke couldn’t even get their story straight – on the day of the announcement one radio station had an outspoken local supporter of marine parks saying we’d see more big fish as a result, while hours later the Environment Minister told 6PR that the parks had nothing to do with fisheries management.

While the Rottnest Trench closure raised the ire of many Perth fishers, new lockout areas in Geographe Bay and off Dampier, which weren’t in draft maps, also surprised rec fishing representatives that had been involved in the consultation process in good faith, and who suddenly felt as if they had been swindled. Recfishwest chief executive officer Andrew Rowland was disappointed by the announcement, noting there was little scientific justification for locking anglers out of their own waters.

“Where is the science that says iconic fishing areas like Geographe Bay, the Rottnest Trench and Dampier need to be out of bounds to recreational fishing?” Dr Rowland asked.

“The detriment to the recreational fishing sector will be huge and for what conservation benefits?”

Interestingly, the announcement came just days before the Rio 20+ summit, at which Julia Gillard and her political chums will no doubt attempt to gain great mileage out of their carbon tax and shiny new marine parks, the biggest in the world. It reminds me of playing marbles at school in Albany when I was a kid.

Of course, while the Labor Government spruiks its environmental credentials and accepts the plaudits of the Chicken Little brigade that would have you believe all the issues facing the world’s oceans will be solved by marine parks in Australia, it quietly approves oil and gas exploration close to the pristine Rowley Shoals. This week it made the decision to allow a 142m Dutch super trawler into our waters.

While recreational fishers should be up in arms, let’s not forget the impact of further restrictions on the commercial sector, and furthermore the resulting impacts on everyday Australians. We already import 70 per cent of our seafood in Australia and this figure must inevitably rise as our population grows and the commercial supply of fish declines.
Catching fish has a much smaller environmental footprint than land-based agriculture, but we can look forward to much more of our seafood coming from South-East Asia in years to come, where there is not anywhere near the level of integrated fisheries management we enjoy in Australia. I’m no marine biologist, but this is hardly a good result for global fish stocks, although it is good news if you like eating basa.

WA’s Fisheries Department, which released a paper a couple of years ago that found marine parks only have “limited” value in local waters, was not consulted at all during the process. One senior Fisheries official said: “this has nothing at all to do with science, what we are doing is exporting environmental unsustainability overseas.”

Cost and enforcement are other major issues to consider. How will these marine parks be enforced and who will pay for that enforcement? It’s not likely to be Pew, and it should be noted the commercial fishing compensation allocation for the original marine parks announced by the Howard Government at the Great Barrier Reef was budgeted as less than $10 million and blew out to more than $250 million.
Around $100 million has been allocated for industry compensation this time around and has already described as “woefully inadequate”, and a similar blowout will make it an extraordinarily expensive way to buy votes. At least the commercial fishers get something, recreational anglers will receive absolutely no compensation.

Incredibly, the oil and gas industry has been left with virtually no impediment to exploration and extraction activities!

Yet Burke, the latest in a long line of Australian politicians to scramble for a personal legacy, would have us believe we owe him a huge debt of gratitude for his actions.
In the words of another Caddyshack character, Judge Schmails,: “I owe you nothing!”

Scott Coghlan is the editor of WA Angler and a columnist for Perth’s Sunday Times.

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