Australia Announces Plan for Large Network of MPAs off SW Coast

MPA News

The Australian Government has released a proposal for a network of eight new MPAs for the country's South-west marine region. The network would be substantial: it would cover a total area of 538,000 km2, or roughly 40% of the region's Commonwealth waters, which start 3 nm off the coast. The proposal was released alongside a draft marine bioregional plan for the country's southwestern waters. Both proposals are now open for public comment.

Although the Government refers to the proposed MPAs as "marine reserves", which often connotes no-take restrictions, the sites would allow extractive activity in some areas. As laid out, the new MPAs comprise three types of zones:

  • Marine National Park zones: excluding all commercial activities and extractive recreational activities, except for vessel passage and non-extractive tourism.
  • Multiple Use zones: allowing a range of existing activities to continue while excluding activities that carry a high risk to the conservation values of the MPAs. Under the proposal, excluded activities would include demersal gillnetting, demersal longlining, and demersal trawling.
  • Special Purpose zones: allowing a wider range of commercial activities than in the multiple-use zones. Under the proposal, demersal trawling would be the only fishing method excluded from the special purpose zones.

However, the size of the no-take portions is significant - 53% of the proposed network's total area. Most of that is provided by the largest of the proposed sites: the 322,000-km2 South-West Corner Commonwealth Marine Reserve, of which 77% (249,180 km2) would be zoned as no-take.

Announcing the proposal, Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke said, "We have a once in a generation opportunity to put in place the measures needed to protect our precious marine environment for future generations."

Impacts on fishing

In selecting the proposed MPAs, the government sought to represent all depth ranges, large-scale ecological features, and seafloor features in the marine region. It also sought to avoid the areas of highest use by, and value to, the commercial fishing industry. However, the government expects that of the 24 fisheries operating in the region, 16 may be affected, and some of these may experience significant displacement of fishing effort. According to a government analysis, the proposed network could displace fisheries catch worth 1-2% of the gross value of production of the region's fisheries. The Great Australian Bight Trawl Fishing Industry Association has already called the size of the proposed South-West Corner MPA excessive.

The government recently announced its policy on compensating displaced commercial fishing operators and fishing-dependent communities as part of its effort to establish a representative network of MPAs country-wide by the end of 2012 (see news brief, this issue).

The MPA network proposal and draft bioregional plan are open for public comment until 8 August 2011 at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/south-west/index.html.