Is Australia Staging The World's Largest Conservation Rollback?

The area off the Great Barrier Reef is to have its conservation status downgraded putting nearby areas such as this outer reef at risk. Katae Olaree/Shutterstock

The Australian government has released new management plans for marine reserves, which have been criticized for effectively removing conservation status from iconic regions off the Great Barrier Reef. Opponents of the move are calling it the largest unwinding of conservation zones in world history, at least by area, exceeding the Trump administration's downsizing of two national parks to make way for mining. Others have questioned how strong the protection was beforehand.

Marine reserves protect the ecology of the areas they cover. Despite the protests of commercial and recreational fishers, there is abundant evidence to show that when properly run they provide long-term benefits within the parks and to the areas around them.

However, there are no universal rules on what is allowed within marine reserves, let alone parks, which are defined even more vaguely. One area may strictly limit the numbers of snorkeling tourists, while another allows giant fishing trawlers, with the reserve status meaning only that drilling for oil is banned.

This variation has made space for heated debate as to whether the proposed management plan for an enormous network of marine reserves mounts to a gutting of their protected status.

The parks were announced in 2012 in what the environment minister at the time described as the “biggest step the globe has ever seen” for ocean conservation. Covering a third of Australia's ocean territories, the reserves were certainly huge, but the global significance was questioned on the basis that commercial fishing would be allowed in 80 percent of them.

Although management plans for many marine parks are under debate, most controversy is focused on the Coral Sea conservation zone, shown here. Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999

Critics argued that the government was trying to have it both ways, impressing voters concerned about marine conservation with the size of the territory, while keeping the fishing industry happy by doing little to limit their effect on the relevant areas.

If so, the second part of that plan didn't work out too well, as a body representing the fishing industry used some very creative accounting to claim the plan would cost 36,000 jobs. The then opposition denounced “locking up the oceans”, and vowed more consultation, a process that began after the 2013 election brought a change in government.

That process has now been completed with management plans accidentally uploaded on Tuesday, a day before the government intended to announce them.

Virtually all of the areas are open to recreational fishing. The initial plans aimed to allow only some sorts of commercial fishing, but this has now been extended to allow super-trawlers that take vast quantities of bycatch, while some will even be open to mining, raising questions about the extent to which these are parks at all.

Whether the government is able to implement these plans will depend on whether attempts to disallow them in the Senate draw the support of smaller parties and independents. 

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