Australian Parliament Passes Re-Zoning Bill for Great Barrier Reef, Creating World's Largest Reserve System

MPA News

The largest marine protected area in the world now also includes the largest network of no-take areas. In late March, the Australian Parliament passed a bill to re-zone the multiple-use Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, setting aside one-third of the 344,000-km2 park as off-limits to all extractive activity. In doing so, legislators created a 115,000-km2 network of no-take zones, representing all 70 marine bioregions throughout the park. (For perspective: The new no-take network is roughly the size of Bulgaria or North Korea. The next largest no-take area is Australia's 65,000-km2 Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve.)

The new zoning plan - raising the no-take percentage of the park from its current 4.7% to 33% - will take effect 1 July 2004. Approval of the bill, which faced no challenge from legislators, marked the culmination of years of public consultation and planning by officials of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA), including hundreds of meetings with stakeholders.

Australian Environment Minister David Kemp says the increased protection provided by the new zoning was about more than just protecting the unique biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef. "Threats such as increased nutrients entering reef waters and global warming are placing reefs everywhere under stress," he said in a public statement. "The best scientific advice is that the most effective way to ensure that reefs are healthy enough to cope with these sorts of pressures is to protect at least 20% of all bioregions in no-take zones. That is exactly what we have done." Considerably more than 20% was achieved in some bioregions, thus accounting for the 33% no-take figure for the re-zoned park as a whole. Kemp says the new zoning will ultimately aid the local tourism and fishing industries, as both depend on healthy reefs for their business.

The environment minister delivered the re-zoning plan to Parliament last December (MPA News 5:6). That plan was a revision of a mid-2003 draft: based on public comment on the draft, GBRMPA redrew boundaries for many no-take areas ("green zones"), primarily to lessen negative impacts on users.

In concert with the bill's passage by Parliament, Kemp announced the formation of a four-person independent panel to design a "structural adjustment package" to aid those adversely affected by the new zoning, including commercial fishermen. Like the new zoning, the structural adjustment package - also called an assistance package - will become available on 1 July.

The complex process to re-zone the Great Barrier Reef was remarkable for several aspects, including the size of the area involved, the amount of public consultation, the quantity of data necessary to inform its ecosystem-based approach, and the goal to set aside at least 20% of each distinct habitat type as no-take. There are lessons to be taken from this process, adaptable to other MPA-planning efforts worldwide, and MPA News will follow these in future issues. Below, we consult several stakeholders about the planning process, its results, and some of the challenges faced in crafting the new zoning scheme.

Pat Hutchings, Australian Coral Reef Society

GBRMPA enlisted the aid of scientists throughout Australia to track down and interpret sets of biophysical and socioeconomic data, allowing planners to base their zoning on scientific understanding of the ecosystems and human interests involved. The planning process used a number of GIS-based tools, including MARXAN, to incorporate such information as habitat type, species, and resource use, among many other factors.

Pat Hutchings, president of the Australian Coral Reef Society (a scientific association), was involved in the extensive data search. "Attempting to find all the available datasets - both published and unpublished - and getting them into a format suitable for use when developing zoning plans was a challenge," she says. "It was critical that the information be available to people in an appropriate format for them. Some people wanted very localized information, for example, while others wanted more general."

The appropriate presentation of information was the key to helping achieve buy-in to the process from stakeholders, says Hutchings. Fishermen at public meetings, for example, were shown with a computer how various datasets, including fisheries data, influenced potential boundaries for no-take zones, overlaying economic and social data to see what options were available. "This was very informative to these people, and many now feel they 'own' the plan," she says.

Regarding the 20% no-take goal for each bioregion, Hutchings says there is nothing necessarily "magical" about that figure. "There is no scientific data to say that 20% is sufficient," she says. "While more would perhaps be desirable, it was necessary for the people defining the bioregions to come up with a figure that we considered was achievable, and which would still make a major contribution to maintaining the biodiversity. If pressures continue to impact the reef, we may need more than 20% in the future."

Hutchings says the re-zoning is only one of several management strategies for protecting the Great Barrier Reef, including a reef water quality protection plan that was launched in December 2003. "All of these need to be put in place," she says. "We also still need to develop a monitoring program so that we can show that this zoning plan is conserving, or at least maintaining, reef biodiversity."

Imogen Zethoven, WWF Australia

WWF Australia, an NGO, was a lead voice from the conservation community in the re-zoning process. Imogen Zethoven, the organization's Great Barrier Reef campaign manager, says the new zoning system sets a benchmark for MPAs around the world and offers lessons to other sites considering similar programs.

"Having a good information base on which to identify and map bioregions is crucial to a representative areas program, as is having an agency like GBRMPA that is highly committed to achieving an outcome," she says. "It is also vital to have a scientific community that is willing to speak out in support of MPAs and the benefits they can deliver." To get that message out to the public, WWF ran a high-profile publicity campaign that was able to demonstrate growing local community support for increased protection in the park.

The main challenge faced by supporters of expanded no-take zones, says Zethoven, was to overcome resistance from the commercial and recreational fishing sectors. Over the course of the planning process, she says, much of the latter sector came around to support the re-zoning. "The draft zoning plan contained a variety of zoning types," she says. "One type, which allowed only limited line fishing ["yellow zones"], was supported by recreational fishers." Like the no-take green zones, the yellow zones were to be expanded under the new zoning. "Hence," says Zethoven, "the recreational fishers saw advantages to supporting the whole package of the final zoning plan, including the network of no-take zones."

The commercial fishing industry was more difficult to win over, and Zethoven says the final plan is weaker than its earlier draft version due to changes intended to address concerns of the commercial fishing industry, particularly the bottom trawl fishery. "The [mid-2003] draft plan contained a comprehensive spread of no-take zones throughout the bioregions of the park," she says. "The final plan reflected a significant shift of no-take zones away from areas of intensive fishing pressure to remote offshore areas with little or no pressure." In addition, she says, compromises in the final plan reduced connectivity among habitats and failed to protect a number of sites identified during planning as "special" or "unique".

Nonetheless, she is thankful the 20% goal was reached in each bioregion. "The real world of politics is inescapable," she says. "The ultimate lesson for NGOs in working to achieve a network of MPAs is to plan well ahead for this inevitability and to develop political networks that are as strong as those of the fishing industry."

Vern Veitch, Sunfish Queensland

Set to benefit from the expanded yellow zones where recreational fishing is allowed but commercial activity is very limited, much of the recreational fishing sector appears generally pleased with the outcome of the re-zoning process. However, Vern Veitch, vice chairman of Sunfish Queensland, a recreational fishing association, says the goals of the process will be compromised if they are unaccompanied by improved commercial fisheries management. Veitch says the areas still open to commercial fishing "will be subject to higher and potentially unsustainable fishing pressure" unless there are programs to reduce overall fishing effort. (Such a program for the bottom trawl fishery occurred in 1999.)

Veitch is also concerned that the re-zoning plan does not account for the impacts of the growing reef-based tourism industry, which contributes AU$4.5 billion (US$3.2 billion) to the Australian economy each year. Such impacts can include interference with spawning aggregations and other fish behavior, as well as damage to coral, he says. "The program was supposed to protect bioregions but it ended up as pure fishing closures," he says. "All other activities related to tourism still exist and are expanding."

The zoning plan is giving people a "warm, fuzzy feeling", says Veitch, but he echoes Hutchings in saying that no one may know if it has helped the environment unless a monitoring program for the new closures is put in place. He says zone violations could be an issue, too. "With the massive increase in inshore closure of areas that are easily accessible, there is no funding commitment yet to provide increased enforcement to ensure compliance," he says.

Ryan Donnelly, Ecofish

Ryan Donnelly is executive officer of Ecofish, a commercial fishing organization around the city of Cairns, in the far northern part of the state of Queensland; Cairns is the hub of reef-based tourism for the Great Barrier Reef and also home to one of the reef's largest fishing fleets. Donnelly says that in the re-zoning process, his sector was unfairly singled out for restrictions, despite the fact that other user groups also impact the park. In effect, he says, the process was one of resource re-allocation rather than biodiversity protection. The tourism sector will benefit from the expanded green zones (no-take), and the recreational fishing sector will benefit from the expanded yellow zones. Meanwhile, some commercial fishing activity - namely bottom trawling - will effectively be excluded from two-thirds of the park. (Under the pre-existing zoning scheme, bottom trawling is excluded from roughly half of the park.)

Donnelly says the planning process should have better accounted for the economic dependence the industry and its families have on the park's resources. "Instead, the process allowed any sector to gather unlimited submissions from any number of parties who had little or no real interest as stakeholders in the outcome and consequences of their input," he says. "Such information gathering gave potentially misleading and inaccurate weighting to the public response in favor of no-take zones."

Now that the re-zoning plan has been approved, the commercial fishing sector is focused on ensuring there is an adequate assistance package for affected fishermen. Donnelly would like for the package to include payments to boat owners, displaced crew, and affected post-harvest businesses, as well as a license buyback program. He would also like job retraining for unemployed workers. There has already been consultation to address these issues between industry and the panel developing the structural adjustment program, he says.

David Hutchen, Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators

The expansion of the green zones - in which diving, snorkeling, and boating are allowed - is welcome news to the reef-based tourism sector, consisting of a range of operations from large pontoon-based outfits to dive and snorkel guides. David Hutchen, chairman of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators, has good things to say about the public consultation that was part of the planning process. "The consultation ensured both understanding and eventual acceptance of the need to assure the future preservation of the Great Barrier Reef," he says.

Although some non-tourism sectors may be dissatisfied with elements of the final result, says Hutchen, there was broad public support for the ideals of the planning process. Such support was achieved through early involvement of representatives from marine industries, followed by wide-ranging, well-publicized, and well-presented information sessions with the public and interested parties. The fact the re-zoning plan passed Parliament with no debate, he says, is testament to the effectiveness of the public consultation.

Hutchen believes the re-zoning could have been improved, however, by enlarging the no-take network even more, to 50% of the park. "While it is a commendable achievement to have expanded the non-extractive areas, I personally do not think that 33% is enough to ensure the preservation of the reef," he says.

For more information:

Pat Hutchings, Division of Invertebrate Zoology, Australian Museum, 6 College Street, Sydney NSW 2010, Australia. Tel: +61 2 9320 6243; E-mail: path [at] austmus.gov.au

Imogen Zethoven, WWF Australia, PO Box 710, Spring Hill, Qld 4004, Australia. Tel: +61 7 3839 2677; E-mail: izethoven [at] wwf.org.au

Vern Veitch, Sunfish Queensland, 4 Stagpole Street, Townsville, Qld 4810, Australia. Tel: +61 7 4771 6087; E-mail: vernv [at] bigpond.net.au

Ryan Donnelly, Ecofish TNQ Ltd, PO Box 3065, Cairns, Qld 4870, Australia. Tel: +61 7 4040 4444; E-mail: rdonnelly [at] ecofish.com.au

David Hutchen, AMPTO, PO Box 5720, Cairns, Qld 4870, Australia. Tel: +61 7 4044 4990; E-mail: dhutchen [at] fantasea.com.au


BOX: New zoning is online

The new GBRMPA zoning plan is available online at http://www.reefed.edu.au/rap/index.html. The website features maps showing the expanded no-take zones by region and explanations of the criteria considered in re-zoning. For an overview of the planning process (in PDF format), visit http://www.reefed.edu.au/rap/pdf/rap_overview_brochure.pdf.