Potential for watered-down Coral Sea protection threatens the cradle to the Great Barrier Reef
The world's oceans are facing increasing challenges, with threats posed by climate change, pollution and overfishing. In the light of these challenges it is becoming increasingly important to set aside large areas of our ocean to allow ecosystems to operate in their natural state. Globally, more and more nations are relying on marine protected areas and reserves to give their regions of our blue planet a fighting chance.
Australia has a lot at stake as steward of the world's third-largest marine territory and some of the most diverse marine life on Earth. Our continent rises from the junction of three major oceans and contains tropical, temperate and subantarctic ecosystems, with much of our marine life found nowhere else. Historically, Australia has led the way in global marine conservation. In the 1980s, we created the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and in 2012, we announced what would have become the world's largest representative national network of marine parks and sanctuaries. This network boasted 60 large marine parks around the nation's coastline, with the primary objective being biodiversity conservation.
The declaration of the formation of the marine reserve network was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Australian public. It followed 15 years of advocacy, scientific research and consultation, and more than a decade of work by consecutive Governments from both major parties. The marine reserve system went through six rounds of public consultations, with over three quarters of a million people providing submissions — 95 per cent in favour of greater protection for Australian maritime zones.
The network includes about a third of Australian offshore Commonwealth waters, with 14 per cent designated as highly protected sanctuary zones. While still falling short of the World Parks Congress recommendation of protecting 20-30 per cent of marine and coastal areas in sanctuary zones, it was a significant increase from the previous 4 per cent.
Despite this progress, Australian marine reserves were suspended from operation by a newly instated Government that ordered a review within its first 100 days of office. Leading research institutions, including the Australian Marine Science Association (AMSA) and The Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland, pointed to the lack of research behind the Government's decision to suspend the marine reserve network, but those arguments fell on deaf ears.
The largest and most important park in the reserve system — the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve — lies adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef. It is also the reserve that is most likely to be severely affected by the review.
THE CORAL SEA — A BIODIVERSITY HOTSPOT
The Coral Sea is located north-east of Australia's Queensland coast. It is bounded on the west by the Great Barrier Reef and on the north by the Torres Strait Protected Zone. These ocean environments are inextricably linked and should be managed as a broad ecosystem, particularly in the light of the parlous state of the Great Barrier Reef, which is under significant pressure and has lost half of its coral cover in the past 27 years. In the past 13 months it has endured two consecutive severe bleaching events and a category four cyclone. At the time of writing, the results of these latest impacts had not yet been quantified.
Cradling the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea is a biodiversity hotspot containing 49 different habitats supporting over 300 threatened species. It is globally recognized for its diversity of large predators, such as sharks, tunas, marlin, swordfish and sailfish, and is one of the last places on Earth where populations have not yet been severely depleted. The Coral Sea provides habitat for many endangered species, including hawksbill and green turtles. It is home to 28 species of whales and dolphins and 27 species of seabirds.
A CRITICAL BIOLOGICAL LINK
The Coral Sea is a critical link between the western Pacific and the Great Barrier Reef, and further on to the Coral Triangle of South-East Asia. It provides many of the necessary stepping stones that enable genetic exchanges between species via ocean currents, which transport spores, larvae and migratory animals. The Coral Sea also plays an important role in replenishing the Great Barrier Reef with new life. It receives oceanic currents flowing west from Vanuatu that restore the biological communities growing on its emergent reefs.
WHAT'S AT STAKE UNDER THE PROPOSED CUTS?
The Coral Sea is one of the very few places in the world where relatively intact tropical marine life can be protected on a large scale. In fact, Dr Daniela Ceccarelli, a marine ecology consultant at the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, found that the Coral Sea sanctuary zones represent "probably the only tropical pelagic environment not markedly impacted by fishing where an area of very large scale can be established and effectively managed." The marine reserve as originally proposed is home to the largest sanctuary zone in Australia and is one of the few places in the world where such a large marine sanctuary can be established to protect a relatively healthy tropical marine environment. This makes the Coral Sea's conservation values globally significant.
The Marion Plateau is one of the three key ecological features of the Coral Sea. The sanctuary zone at Marion Reef increases protection for the reefs, cays and herbivorous fish of the Plateau. Significantly, the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve is also the only place in Australia where tropical seamount environments are protected.
The Government's own risk assessment process found eight commercial fishing practices to be incompatible with the conservation values of the Coral Sea. Yet the review's new draft management plan proposes to expose the reserve to these intensive fishing practices. Furthermore, major concerns exist within the scientific community about the new draft management plan's low level of protection for the unique habitats of the Coral Sea, particularly its deep water troughs, open water (pelagic) ecosystems and unique coral reefs.
The marine reserve network sought to achieve comprehensive and representative coverage of major ecological systems in Australia. Rather than overreaching, many scientists have argued that the proportion in areas of sanctuary zones is insufficient to achieve biodiversity conservation. In fact, for the Coral Sea specifically, a scientific consensus statement facilitated by the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and endorsed by the AMSA, as well as over 300 scientists, raised concerns over the inadequate protection for key habitats in the southern and western parts of the Coral Sea. The recent review process seeks to significantly reduce what the scientific community has already identified as inadequate or low-level protections.
ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL CONTEXT
The Centre for Conservation Geography found that the net social and economic value of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve to the Australian community amounts to $1.2 billion. In addition, they found that the reserve is predicted to generate a net increase of 100 jobs, with positive impacts on nature-based tourism and recreational fishing outweighing any possible negative impacts on commercial fishing by at least $5 million per year. The reserve has been extremely successful at minimizing the displacement of commercial fishing activities with the maximum potential negative impact estimated to be $4.2 million. The creation of the reserve is predicted to expand the tourism industry by 150 per cent, which is a gain in direct sales of $9 million.
Up to a third of the reserve was set up to become the exclusive site of recreational and charter fishing, creating what is effectively the largest recreational fishing zone in Australian history. The original zoning proposed in 2012 achieved a good balance between high-level sanctuary zone protection and commercial use. The review puts this very much at risk, however, with big cuts in protection being considered.
This article was first published under the headline "Protecting the Coral Sea - the cradle to the Great Barrier Reef" in UN Chronicle, the magazine of the United Nations, in May 2017