Coral Sea Marine Reserve: fears become reality.

Dennis McMullen
Former NPAQ Councillor

Imagine this! A hypothetical Australian Federal Government is concerned about protecting the natural heritage but is also open to the competing commercial influence of developers who are powerfully connected.

Coral Sea underwater beauty 171111Protect Our Coral Sea Lucy Trippett.jpg

This Federal Government, takes a lead from the Wisdom of Solomon who dealt with the dispute over a new-born baby by offering the female claimants half of the baby each.

So the hypothetical Government examines the disputed territory, let’s say Its Lamington National Park.

The claims by the conservationists relate to the value of the property for future generations, demonstrating what the countryside was like prior to the arrival of Europeans. They also put forward a credible argument for its protection as a place of beauty with many wonderful features such as ancient forest, spectacular views, exceptional wildlife and natural beauty which make this park an outstanding place to explore and well worth protecting. There is a rich volcanic history under the spreading greenery of the park. Tamborine, Springbrook, Beechmont and Lamington are remnants of the Tweed shield volcano’s northern flank. Mount Warning is all that remains of the volcano’s core and the Tweed Valley is a large erosion caldera carved from the eastern flank.

The developers claim is based on what they see as the locking up of a resource which could be turned into a profitable source of income, once the land is cleared.

The Government hears the arguments and comes down with its Solomon-like response.

They recognise the beauty and the significance of the forest. They agree that there are many areas within the contested territory that should be preserved. So they agree to lift the national park protection, but compensate by protecting, one example of each tree, a broad, encompassing view from a cliff, that interesting waterfall,  a typical 100 metres of track and a small stand of strangler fig.

The rest of the forest is laid open for the developers, who drive a four lane highway through, set up zip lines by clearing awkwardly placed old-growth trees, and establish a hunting lodge and release wildlife for the sportsmen.

You might say this hypothetical is crazy stuff which could never happen.

But this is happening right now.

The former Labor Government set up the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve which encompasses the former Coral Sea Conservation Zone, former Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve and former Lithou Reef National Nature Reserve.

Subsequently, when the coalition government under Prime Minister Abbott as elected in 2014 the government suspended the unfinished marine protection process which would have created 40 additional reserves along the Australian coast.

Instead The federal Government has introduced a protection plan for the Coral Sea, in which protection has been continued, but has been limited to a series of reefs and atolls whilst the rest of the Coral Sea is to be thrown open to commercial fishing.

The conservation park zone now covers only 502 Km² - less than 50% of the sea.

The Marine National Park now covers only 50.78% of the reserve.

This is despite the the Coral Sea being one of the very few places in the world where relatively intact tropical marine life could be protected on a large scale.

The decision, to provide high levels of protection only to these reefs that are dotted across the Coral Sea lays the rest of the  area open to the Government’s invitation to commercial fishers for exploitation. This invitation even includes an offer of financial assistance to fishing entities that may have suffered loss under the Marine Park arrangements.

Areas covered with full protection include reefs such as Bougainvillea, Holmes, Marion, Wreck (where Matthew Flinders came to grief) Kenn and Cato. In the vastness of the Coral Sea, these are far distant from each other, specks in the sea, resulting in a difficult, if not impossible task for management and control.

As a result, managing compliance of vessels in the Coral Sea is now near impossible.

The Government’s own risk assessment process found eight fishing practices to be incompatible with the conservation values of the Coral Sea, yet the draft management plan proposes to expose the reserve to these intensive fishing practices.

One argument for this outcome was the necessity to protect the economies of Queensland coastal communities where charter game fishing provides significant employment and income. Charter fishing trips from Queensland centres like Cairns are limited by their very nature.  As they say, if you catch a black marlin, it’s too big to toss onto a pan, so it’s photo, tag and release. Commercial fishing is notorious for its destructive effect on fisheries.

The 50% of the sea not covered by these, now watered-down restrictions, is open to unlimited commercial fishing, using long lines, floating gill nets and ocean bottom trawling. These processes are destructive. They also produce large yields of by-catch, unwanted fish, and other sea creatures, from seabirds to turtles, that are killed by the process, then thrown back into the sea.

The use of sea bottom trawling has been demonstrated as being destructive of the tops of seamounts which play a significant part in spawning activities. As well, many fish, caught in bottom trawling that are unwanted and discarded, are often juveniles of valuable species

There is existing clear evidence of the decline in fish stocks in Australian waters. Fish such as orange roughy, eastern gemfish and school shark are still being caught, despite being fished to as little as 10% of their natural populations.

The Coalition plan for the Coral Sea will mean that 97% of Commonwealth waters within 100 kilometres of the coast are thrown open to commercial fishing.

The recently released Coral Sea Marine Park Management Plan 2018 allows for commercial fishing using long line in special purpose and habitat protected zones, but rules out pelagic and demersal net fishing (i.e., ‘shallow’ or ‘deep’). But policing these matters in a sea which covers almost 980,000 square kilometres is difficult if not  impossible.

As Tooni Mahto,  ACMS Threatened Species spokesperson said, “at a time when  our oceans are under pressure from climate change, we should be giving them all the care we can.”