Selecting the best locations for marine protected areas

Underwater canyons may be critical and overlooked habitat for many large migratory fish including tuna, swordfish and mackerel.

FOR an ex-public servant who worked on infrastructure planning, the ABC’s latest series of Utopia was painful to watch, as well as being extremely funny. Despite the best efforts of the boss and his highly competent off-sider to provide something useful for the Australian community and the economy, government priorities related largely to media opportunities, combined with politically correct HR people and shallow ministerial staffers obsessed with stakeholder satisfaction, constantly frustrated their attempts to get the right results delivered on projects.

Watching the development of the nation’s network of marine protected areas (MPA), you feel like any Government of the day is basically looking for a media-acceptable solution to a problem rather than a truly useful conservation outcome. Depending on whether the Government of the day is left or right leaning, different groups of stakeholders will be accommodated to greater or lesser degree. It might be conservation groups, it might be the fishing industry.

Surely decisions on MPA size and locations should be grounded in sound science, and areas and zones established not on a percentage formulae but on genuine protection criteria and data.

This makes a recent University of WA study of underwater canyons particularly interesting. Researchers have found that underwater canyons may be critical and overlooked habitat for many large migratory fish including tuna, swordfish and mackerel. Lead author of the study, Dr Phil Bouchet, said in an issue of UWA University News “Underwater canyons have long been known to have a large variety of marine life, but until now there has been little evidence that this included large-bodied migratory fish…we identified the Argo-Rowley, Ningaloo, Perth, Bremer and Albany canyons, among other sites, as having an abundance of fish. Discovering this will give us a foundation to consider appropriate protection measures in the vast and deep waters surrounding WA.”

Co-author, Professor Jessica Meeuwig, said “Prominent seabed features like canyons are static and well charted in Australia. If we can demonstrate that they reliably attract ocean wildlife, we can then use them as a blueprint for supporting spatial management efforts like the designation and placement of marine reserves…we compared fish hotspots with the Commonwealth Marine Reserves and found that there was very little overlap between the two. This suggests that we are failing to protect a critical part of our ocean heritage.”

Work continues on collecting data using baited underwater video cameras aimed at explaining why only some canyons provide favourable habitats for fish. Using focused research like this seems to be a far more sensible approach to the identification of places of critical conservation importance, rather than locking up whole areas of ocean to meet a target or keep a vocal stakeholder group happy.

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