Marine conservation plan panned

By Natalie Muller 10 August 2011
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Experts are underwhelmed by a government plan to protect the seas of Australia’s southwest.

SCIENTISTS SAY THERE are gaping holes in the Federal Government’s marine reserve blueprint for a biodiverse region that stretches all the way from Kangaroo Island in South Australia to Shark Bay in Western Australia, and is home to sea lions and whale sharks.

The proposed marine reserve network covers an area of some 1.3 million square kilometres and includes eight marine reserves in Commonwealth waters. However, many argue that these sanctuary zones do not represent the different habitats in the region, and leave the vulnerable continental shelf unprotected.

The draft plan was released in May, and now, more than 150 marine experts have signed a statement urging Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to expand the protected areas. Read the statement, which was published online last week, here.

Getting the balance right

One of them, Professor Jessica Meeuwig, marine ecologist at the University of Western Australia in Perth, is disappointed that only 3.5 per cent of the threatened continental shelf area will be protected under the plan. She says this is well below international standards of 20 – 40 per cent protection for vital areas.

“It’s not as if scientists are asking for 90 per cent of the area to be locked up, but just as we have national parks on land, we should be protecting areas in the marine environment,” Jessica told Australian Geographic.

The region supports a mix of tropical, sub-tropical and temperate habitats, which she says should all be partly protected so that biodiversity can be maintained in the long term. “We’re not even close to getting a balance. Less than 1 per cent of Western Australia’s marine environment is protected, which means that 99 per cent is still open to fishing, oil and gas,” she says.

Dr Jill St John, a fish ecologist and the marine coordinator of The Wilderness Society in WA says a lack of protected zones will lead to a decline in the south west’s unique species. In recent decades she has seen the population of West Australian dhufish (Glaucosoma hebraicum) dwindle in the popular fishing area of Geographe Bay, 220km south-west of Perth.

“There are more unique fish species here than the Great Barrier Reef and there are a lot of animals that aren’t found anywhere else,” she says. “We need to make sure they will be here in the future.” Around 33 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is protected, an example scientists say should be copied for conservation in south west Australia.

Protecting a biodiversity hotspot

The south-west is a popular breeding and feeding ground for Australian sea lions, southern right whales, white sharks, and the blue whale.

The seas are also dotted with natural phenomena such as Abrolhos Islands, the Rottnest Shelf, the Perth Canyon, the Recherche Archipelago, the Great Australian Bight and the Kangaroo Island upwelling system. But according to Jochen Kaempf, physical oceanographer at Flinders University, Adelaide, the draft proposal completely ignores the scientific importance of many of these sites.

He says the upwelling system in particular, an “important biological hotspot” that begins south of Kangaroo Island, should have been declared a marine reserve in its entirety. “It is one of the most important marine regions in Australian waters, but the key area of this upwelling system is not considered in the proposal at all. Instead, it looks at little patches,” he says.

The influx of nutrients into this upwelling system helps the complex ecosystem in this area thrive. “What the bureaucrats ignore is that water flows from A to B, and that whatever happens in this pathway can have a negative impact on the marine food chain,” Jochen says.

The government has already made compromises for commercial fishing and oil exploration in key areas, rather than looking at the scientific evidence, he says: “I think this is the wrong starting point in terms of marine conservation.”

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