The Sea & Me

A film and case studies that explore the triumphs of Australia’s marine reserves

The film The Sea & Me, which documents the successes of Australia’s marine park network, explores how these reserves act as an insurance policy for the future by providing a sanctuary that allows marine life to recover and rebuild. Released to packed venues in 2015, the film was accompanied by a collection of case studies that take a more in-depth look at the inspiring people who steward our oceans.

“In all the places featured in the film, marine reserves and sanctuaries have been in place for up to two decades,” says co-director Danielle Ryan, of Bluebottle Films. “And in each case, we see world-class conservation and recreation successfully working hand in hand.”

The smaller vignettes cover various locations and provide detailed information on the benefits of sanctuaries. Following are some highlights.

Ningaloo Reef Marine Park
Western Australia

In the decade since Ningaloo Reef became one of Australia’s most highly protected marine areas, it has attracted an impressive 180,000 tourists a year, who spend in excess of $141 million. For Leonie McLeod, a merino grazier from Warroora Station, this place is her home, livelihood and passion.

“I’ve had a fairly good look around the world, and I’ve noticed that there are no places still as wild and beautiful adjacent to a pristine coral reef anywhere,” she says. “It’s what people are seeking from all over the world. They just want to see something natural.”

McLeod is working to keep her Ningaloo Marine Park-bordering property a pristine paradise for the world to see. She has lowered the recreational fishing catch limit for the many campers visiting her place and restored coastal vegetation to prevent run-off onto the reef.

Watch Warroora’s Salty Oasis.

Great Barrier Reef Marine Park
Rockhampton and Yeppoon, Queensland

The Rockhampton and Yeppoon communities know all about integrating science into fun activities like fishing and have become models for other towns aiming to take a stewardship role in designing and caring for marine reserves. Fisherman Bill Sawynok’s fish-tagging competition, Rocky Barra Bounty, has become one of the premier barramundi competitions in Queensland and contributes to local research.

Since the 1990s, Sawynok has been training his fishing group participants to target and collect the fish identifications of many species. He says fishing has been vital to his community, and he has worked with leading scientists to share his group’s data, which contributed to the design of the sanctuary zone off Yeppoon in Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

“When the Rocky Barra Bounty was established in 1998, there were clear objectives in mind. One was for the guys to get out there and have a great time and catch fish. The other was that we were able to collect information about the status of our stocks,” Sawynok says.

There was originally some hesitation from the local communities when the nearby Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was rezoned in 2004.

“I guess there was a lot of community angst about not understanding why they needed to have so many sanctuary zones there,” says Sawynok. “But the local community here really took it into their own hands, and that led to the community making its own decisions about where it thought the sanctuary zones should be.”

Over the past 25 years, the fishermen have collected data on more than 1.1 million fish in Queensland, creating one of the world's largest database managed by recreational fishermen. The data were used by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to aid marine park zoning.

See Bill’s Bounty.

The Great Barrier Reef
From the Whitsundays to the Palm Islands

A monitoring program around the inshore reefs shows that coral trout here are producing up to 10 times more offspring, and certain fish stocks have increased by as much as 100 percent. The monitoring program, run by Dr David Williamson from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University, is proving the benefits of marine protected areas once more.

“Within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, we’ve got about 33 percent of the total area protected within no-take marine reserves. These areas are spread around coral reefs, sea grass beds and mangrove systems. There’s a whole range of habitats that are protected in this zoning plan,” Williamson says.

“We look at the inshore reefs of the marine park. ... We’ve seen really strong effects of the reserves, particularly for the things that we fish. Number one amongst them is coral trout. Coral trout are a really iconic species and highly targeted by both commercial fishers on the offshore reefs and recreational fishers where we are in the islands.”

Williamson says the research examines the effects of recreational fishing, zoning, and how these two elements interact to influence fish stocks.

The study shows an increase in coral trout populations within areas closed to fishing, while in areas open to fishing populations have remained relatively stable with no major increases.

View Searching for Trout.

Tinderbox Marine Nature Reserve
Hobart, Tasmania

Rob Pennicott was disappointed the day his local fishing spot was turned into a marine park. Today, he says his fishing tourism business, Pennicott Wilderness Journeys, relies not just on good fisheries management but also on the longevity of marine Tasmania’s reserve areas. He is passionate about the marine environment in southern Tasmania and relishes the opportunity to share it with others.

“We see the high sea cliffs in the Southern Hemisphere. We go into caves up against blowholes, and we share it with a lot of animals. We always see hundreds of seals. In Tasmania, we’re very fortunate we’ve got temperate water, because… the array of marine life is some of the most abundant in the world,” Pennicott says.

As a youth, he lived in nearby Tinderbox, a favourite fishing spot that also became an early source of income when he started to sell some of his catch at age 12. But around his 18th birthday, it became a marine reserve.

“Being truthful, I found that a little tough at the time,” he says. “The elderly people who used to live along the foreshore and catch their one or two fish swimming off the rocks were no longer allowed to. But it has been in place now for around 25 years, and I must admit it is very positive.”

Pennicott says most people around him share this view, including fishermen who were originally opposed to marine park zones but now support them because they have seen an increase in the number of fish just outside the protected areas.

The marine protected areas are paying dividends for Pennicott, who recently expanded his ecotourism business to include gourmet seafood cruises.

“In the last year, we’ve started sustainable tourism in catching abalone, crayfish, sea urchin and lots of other things and serving them on board the boat,” Pennicott says.

Pennicott believes sustainability is the most important aspect of fisheries management. He says if a fishery is not sustainable, “we shouldn’t be fishing it,” and he believes a combination of marine reserves and species catch quotas will deliver for future generations.

View With Change Comes Opportunity.

Port Stephens-Great Lakes Marine Park
New South Wales

Until the day he first went diving, Nigel Hayward never thought of the impact he had on the ocean as a fisherman. Today, while he still loves fishing, he believes it is his duty as a father to share his knowledge of sustainable fishing with his children and to teach them the important role marine parks play in preserving the underwater world.

Hayward worked on a fishing trawler for two years before he left to work as a diver. Now employed as a dive instructor at Let’s Go Adventures, he can’t get enough of the wonders of the underwater world. But he didn’t always feel this way.

“I used to have the outlook, ‘Fish are fish. So what? Catch them, eat them—yippee!—nothing to it,’” he explains. “Back when I was on the trawler, all I wanted was money, so we’d catch what we could. That’s what we were there for.”

Hayward recalls when the penny dropped.

“I can just remember back to my first dive, being in the environment and thinking to myself, ‘This is beautiful. It’s amazing!’ Words fail me to try and describe it. It changed my outlook on fish completely.”

He says that all fishers can benefit from diving.

“Recreational diving is really good from a recreational fisherman’s point of view. You can see what [marine species are] doing and where they are living. But it also opens your eyes to the fact they are not brainless animals. For example, the big blue groper will come up, and he’s like a big puppy dog. He’ll give you a big cuddle.”

Of diving, he says, “This is an experience all fishermen should have, just so they can see what’s happening under there.”

Watch Hooked on Diving.

Solitary Islands Marine Park
New South Wales   

In the Solitary Islands Marine Park, Gumbaynggirr elder and local fisherman Mark Flanders says his people are practicing traditional fishing methods and seeing greater fish stocks. He explains that the sea is integral to their culture.

“This ocean here, our people live with it—we call it Gargul. It’s a very important place for our people,” Flanders says. “When we were at school, we were taught nothing about Aboriginal culture. I made a life change and decided to start working for my people and start living Aboriginal culture throughout my country.”

A memorandum of understanding between the Solitary Islands Marine Park and the Traditional Owners acknowledges these practices and now allows the use of fish traps.

“I think it’s great just being able to practice our traditional ways again—having rights in this modern world and using our fish traps. These traps have probably been operating for about 6,000 years; we just don’t know. For the last 150 years, they haven’t been.”

Flanders says his people are seeing the benefits of local marine protections.

“I think marine parks are very important for the conservation of our marine environment. They are conserving the country, just as my people were doing for thousands of years,” he says. “I’ve seen the benefits of that. Our people have started seeing increases in fish stocks and other resources we have in the marine environment.”

He says marine protection is everyone’s responsibility.

“It’s important for recreational fishers to understand how to best look after the animals in their environment. If you take out everything in that environment, it’s not going to be there tomorrow.”

See Fishing in Gargul.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Composite image of modern city network communication concept

Learn the Basics of Broadband from Our Limited Series

Sign up for our four-week email course on Broadband Basics

Quick View

How does broadband internet reach our homes, phones, and tablets? What kind of infrastructure connects us all together? What are the major barriers to broadband access for American communities?

Pills illustration
Pills illustration

What Is Antibiotic Resistance—and How Can We Fight It?

Sign up for our four-week email series The Race Against Resistance.

Quick View

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria, also known as “superbugs,” are a major threat to modern medicine. But how does resistance work, and what can we do to slow the spread? Read personal stories, expert accounts, and more for the answers to those questions in our four-week email series: Slowing Superbugs.

Explore Pew’s new and improved
Fiscal 50 interactive

Your state's stats are more accessible than ever with our new and improved Fiscal 50 interactive:

  • Maps, trends, and customizable charts
  • 50-state rankings
  • Analysis of what it all means
  • Shareable graphics and downloadable data
  • Proven fiscal policy strategies


Welcome to the new Fiscal 50

Key changes include:

  • State pages that help you keep track of trends in your home state and provide national and regional context.
  • Interactive indicator pages with highly customizable and shareable data visualizations.
  • A Budget Threads feature that offers Pew’s read on the latest state fiscal news.

Learn more about the new and improved Fiscal 50.