Analysis

Australia Clears Another Hurdle in Creating World's Largest Marine Park System

In the long campaign to ensure a sustainable future for Australia's oceans, the final pieces of the puzzle are falling into place—with the potential to change forever how Australians view the sea that surrounds their land. 

On June 4, after almost 15 years of research, debate, and consultation that have crossed political divides, Australians cleared what is expected to be the last major hurdle in creating a shared legacy for protecting their oceans. The nation's House of Representatives rejected an effort to undo regulations to manage a newly created national system of marine parks. By the end of June, the Senate is expected to pass final judgment on the management plans, the last step in the legislative process.

"This vote reinforces the extraordinary legacy that has been delivered and which all Australians can celebrate," says Imogen Zethoven, director of The Pew Charitable Trusts' Global Ocean Legacy project in Australia. "People from all walks of life showed their support for protection of Australia's waters, from Sir Richard Branson and the Ocean Elders group to recreational anglers and dive-tourism operators.”

At nearly 2.3 million square kilometers (888,000 square miles), the new national system of marine parks is the largest in the world. It stretches from Kangaroo Island in the Southern Ocean, around the entire coast of Western Australia, including a famous whale migration ‘superhighway' off the Kimberley coast, and across the Australia's Top End and Gulf of Carpentaria to the Coral Sea of the Queensland coast. 

Environment Minister Tony Burke has called the Coral Sea “the jewel in the crown.”

Located east of the world-famous Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea is one of the last remaining intact tropical ocean ecosystems in the world. The new Coral Sea Marine Reserve contains the world's second-largest no-take area at approximately 502,000 square kilometers (about 194,000 square miles) and is part of the larger marine protected area. 

Before the federal government's historic decision to establish a world-class system of marine parks, only 10 percent of Australia's waters were protected. Now, 36 percent—or 3.2 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles)—of its waters are given some form of protection, and 13 percent—or 1.2 million square kilometers (464,000 square miles) —are fully protected. 

“In delivering this national assessment of our oceans and its improved protection of our unique marine areas, the current government has put to rest more than two decades of debate about the merits of marine parks,” says Michelle Grady, who directs Pew's oceans work in Australia

Unique and extraordinary marine ecosystems around Australia will be protected in the marine parks, including the Perth Canyon—deeper than the Grand Canyon – in the south west; a mosaic of islands in the Recherche Archipelago off Western Australia; globally important foraging areas for threatened marine turtle species in the Gulf of Carpentaria, and; a submerged mountain range more than 7 kilometers deep at the intersection of the Indian and Southern Oceans. 

Australia's oceans support many of the world's endangered marine animals, including the Green Turtle, the Blue Whale, the Southern Right Whale, the Australian Sea Lion and the whale shark.

The lengthy campaign involving government officials, scientists, and Australians across the country started in 1998 when the Howard government began a process to establish a national system of marine protected areas. 

Since the current government made its commitment to assess further protection of Australia's commonwealth waters, more than four years of consultation with the fishing industry and other stakeholders have occurred. This included more than 250 meetings and more than 750,000 submissions to the government during the public comment period on the marine parks and their management plans. 

In delivering on its promise to create the world's largest system of marine parks, the Australian Government maintains the leadership position it has held since then-Prime Minister John Howard increased protection of the Great Barrier Reef nearly a decade ago. 

Marine parks have had widespread appeal for decades. Since the early 1990s, the science community has held a consensus position supporting them. And there has been growing sentiment among the broader Australian population, including most fishers, that the marine environment is not as healthy as it once was. 

National opinion polling conducted from 2009 to 2012 shows that 70 percent or more of Australians have consistently said it makes sense to have marine sanctuaries as havens for marine life to rebuild and recover from overfishing and to protect the most important areas from mining and destructive trawling. 

Well-established marine parks in Australia now provide clear economic benefits. Each year 1.6 million people visit the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, generating more than $2.8 billion in tourism revenue for the region. In Western Australia, Ningaloo Reef is an icon for tourism and fishers, proving that world-class fishing and world-class conservation go hand in hand. 

Australia's Centre for Policy Development has published studies on the value of the ‘ecosystem services' that the nation's oceans provide—such as nurseries for fish and opportunities for recreation. Caroline Hoisington, a centre fellow and former World Bank economist, has calculated that the new national system of marine parks will protect $1.2 billion a year of these ecosystem services. When added to existing marine parks in Australia, that value increases to $2 billion a year. 

Pew's Grady says the marine parks also help rebuild fish stocks, a fact evident to many fishers who spend their time at the edge of sanctuary areas because the catch is bigger and the variety wider. 

“In New South Wales, for example, the Batemans Bay Marine Park was created in 2007, and local recreational fishers now hail the park as a fishing paradise alongside the regional tourism industry,” Grady says. “This markets the marine park as a key attraction for visitors to the South Coast.”

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