Australian Government Releases Proposal for Large Coral Sea MPA; Stakeholders Respond

MPA News

In late November, the Australian Government released a draft plan to designate what could be the world's largest marine protected area. Covering 989,842 km2, the proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve would be located in Australian waters of the Coral Sea. The MPA would extend from the eastward boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to the edge of the Australian EEZ, where it would border the waters of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and New Caledonia.

As proposed, the new MPA would feature four zone types ranging from fully no-take to various levels of managed use. Broadly, the eastern half of the MPA - farther from the mainland and less accessible - would be no-take. The western half of the MPA (the side adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park) would allow recreational fishing through most of it, as well as selected commercial fishing gear types in particular areas. Some gear types - namely demersal trawling, demersal longlining, and gillnetting - would be banned across the entire MPA (demersal means on or near the seabed). Mining and petroleum exploration/development would also be prohibited.

The proposal is the latest step in Australia's move to apply protection to the region. In 2009, the Government under former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd designated the area as an interim conservation zone to protect its ecosystem from increasing pressures while a detailed assessment of the region was undertaken (MPA News 10:11).

The draft plan for the new MPA is available at www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/coralsea/consultation/index.html. It is open for public comment until 24 February 2012. After that, and following any revisions, there will be a formal statutory declaration process with another round of public consultation.

Feedback on the draft plan

The MPA's no-take zone totals 507,487 km2 and would count by itself as one of the largest no-take marine reserves in the world (the no-take Chagos MPA in the Indian Ocean is 544,000-km2). The proposed no-take zone would comprise 490,200 km2 of new protection as well as two existing Commonwealth no-take reserves of approximately 17,290 km2 established in 1982 - Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve and Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve.

However, the draft plan falls short of a campaign by conservation NGOs to have the entire Australian Coral Sea designated off-limits to fishing to protect its ecosystem and make enforcement simpler. The conservation groups are asking the Government to reconsider the draft zoning. Meanwhile fishing associations have expressed concern that the proposal places unnecessary limits on their activities, which they believe are sustainable and do not threaten the ecosystem. Below, three stakeholders weigh in on the proposed MPA.


A. Trawling should be allowed in part of MPA

By Geoff Tilton, President, Queensland Seafood Industry Association (QSIA)

QSIA represents fishermen in Queensland-managed fisheries, and very few of these occur in the proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, which is in Commonwealth waters. However, of the two major commercial fishing activities that currently occur in the proposed MPA, one is in fact a Queensland-managed fishery: trawling. The trawling occurs in a small 50-km-by-20-km area that is nonetheless important to trawl operators. The trawl area extends out from state waters in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park along a particular depth contour, then loops back to the Park. (The other major commercial fishing activity in the proposed MPA is longline fishing for albacore tuna and swordfish, a Commonwealth-managed fishery.)

It should be noted that within the adjacent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, bottom trawling for prawns is an accepted, ecologically sustainable activity. However, in the proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, no bottom trawling would be allowed.

The proposed zoning maps that have been released for comment are not the first set of Coral Sea maps prepared by the Government [specifically, by the Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities]. Before the current maps were released, an original set was shown to industry and we were asked to comment on them with the view to minimizing the impacts of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve on existing fishing activities. Of the MPA's total area of 1 million km2, the trawl industry operators asked that 1000 km2 - the strip that they currently trawl - be left open to them. By allowing this trawl area, there would be no financial impact on the fishery from the new MPA.

However, the draft plan still contains a total trawl ban. We have a situation where existing trawl ground will be lost and the operational method of the trawl fleet will be severely impacted. No notice was taken by the Department from the original consultation; it seems they just wanted to be able to say, "Trawl is excluded" in announcing the new MPA.

There was also the potential for exploration of new fisheries by commercial fishermen in the area now being closed. Some access to possible future food resources could have been left open while still allowing a huge pristine area.

For more information:

Geoff Tilton, QSIA, Clayfield, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: gbtilton [at] westnet.com.au; Web: www.qsia.com.au


B. A much higher level of protection is needed

By Imogen Zethoven, Director, Coral Sea Campaign, Pew Environment Group

Let me start by saying the draft plan does have some strengths. The total reserve area would be nearly 1 million km2, and demersal longlining and trawling - which are either currently active or have recently been active in the area - would be prohibited throughout the entire MPA. In addition, two potential threats to the ecosystem, gillnetting and mining, would be prohibited.

That said, there are some real shortcomings to the draft plan:

  • We were surprised at the very low level of full protection proposed for the coral reefs that give the Coral Sea its name and identity. Only 2 out of 25 reefs currently open to fishing in the Coral Sea are included in the proposed no-take zone. This would leave more than 90% of the coral reefs in the Coral Sea unprotected.
  • Of the total MPA, 49% would remain open to various forms of fishing. This area (482,355 km2) is in the western and southern Coral Sea. It contains most of the species-rich coral reefs as well as two large trough systems that host spawning aggregations for black marlin, bigeye tuna, and lanternfish. The southern Coral Sea is considered a global hotspot for large apex predators, particularly yellowfin tuna, barracuda, and sharks.
  • Pelagic longline fishing would be allowed to continue in almost one-quarter of the proposed reserve, which includes the southern Coral Sea. While it would be prohibited in the remaining three-quarters of the reserve (almost 730,000 km2), fishing is less intensive in that area. Globally recognized as a threat to seabirds, turtles, and sharks, pelagic longlining is not an appropriate activity in a protected area and is prohibited in the adjacent Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
  • The draft plan contains four different zones in eight spatial configurations. This is too complex for a remote offshore reserve. A single large no-take reserve would be far simpler and more cost-effective to enforce.
  • We had expected some allowance for charter fishing along the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park boundary, but not the very large concessions proposed in the draft plan (catch-and-release recreational fishing would be allowed in 49%, while catch-and-take recreational fishing would be allowed in 47% of the MPA, including almost all of the coral reefs and major spawning aggregation sites). Over the 20-year period from 1989 to 2009, 99.2% of tagged and reported game fish in the region were caught in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and only 0.8% in the area now proposed as a Coral Sea marine reserve.

The Protect Our Coral Sea coalition - which includes the Pew Environment Group and partner organizations (www.protectourcoralsea.org.au) - is calling for the extension of the proposed no-take zone to include all the reefs, cays, and seamounts of the Coral Sea. These habitats are small, isolated from each other, and vulnerable to frequent cyclone events, which make them less resilient than the interconnected reefs of the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem. The coalition is also seeking the extension of the no-take zone over much of the two large trough systems that host the major spawning aggregations of marlin and tunas.

The region is remote and expensive to access. No other part of Australia can offer such major conservation and heritage benefits with so few socio-economic impacts as the Coral Sea. Our goal is to secure a much higher level of protection in the final plan.

For more information:

Imogen Zethoven, Pew Environment Group, Sydney, Australia. E-mail: IZethoven [at] pewtrusts.org


C. Recreational fishing is not identified as threat, so why a ban in 51% of MPA?

By Judy Lynne, Executive Officer, Sunfish Queensland

I would have preferred to see recreational fishing allowed in all areas of the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve. Recreational fishing has not been identified by the Government as posing any risk or threat to the identified values of the Coral Sea. Distance from shore and unpredictable weather already provide extreme limiting factors on the use of this area by recreational fishers. Given the high level of protection already afforded to biodiversity in the adjoining Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as well as in the two existing no-take areas inside the proposed MPA (e.g., Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve and Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve), any additional level of protection in the Coral Sea without any identified risks or threats seems based on politics more than anything else.

Furthermore, limiting access will have little impact on the real ecosystem threats identified in other scientific reports: e.g., diminishing water quality, increasing salinity and turbidity, global warming, and coastal development. In addition, there is no mechanism in the plan to allow flexibility of the zoning scheme as climate and environmental conditions change.

There has been in-depth investigation into identifying the ecosystem values and key biodiversity indicators in the Coral Sea. What is now needed is a risk analysis matrix that can link the real ecosystem threats to the zoning plan.

For more information:

Judy Lynne, Sunfish Queensland. E-mail: judylynne [at] sunfishqld.com.au; Web: www.sunfishqld.com.au