Australia Allows Industry in New Marine Protected Areas

CANBERRA, Australia, May 8, 2006 (ENS) - The Australian government has acted to preserve the unique environment of Australia's south-eastern waters, with an area almost as big as the state of Victoria included in 13 new Marine Protected Areas. But extractive industrial activities will be allowed in more than half of the newly designated area.

Announcing the new protected zones Friday, Minister for the Environment and Heritage Senator Ian Campbell said about one-third of the world's marine protected areas are now in Australian waters.

"This is a major advance for the protection of the unique marine life of the south-east marine region, and significantly, we have been able to deliver these new marine protected areas with minimal impact on industry," Senator Campbell said.

The 226,000 square kilometers in the new Marine Protected Area (MPA) network covers waters off Victoria, Tasmania, far south New South Wales and eastern South Australia. It paves the way for the creation of a national network of Marine Protected Areas throughout Australia's ocean territory, scheduled to be completed by 2012.

Zeehan

The Zeehan MPA spans the continental shelf, continental slope and deeper water ecosystems of the major biological zone that extends from South Australia to the west of Tasmania. Underwater species are exceptionally diverse and include species new to science. Multiple uses will be allowed in this MPA. (Photo courtesy NASA)
Only about 100,000 square km of that area is included in Strict Nature zones where no extractive activities are permitted. The rest of the protected area is designated as multiple use zones where oil and gas exploration, development and associated activities such as laying of pipelines.

"We have also managed to design an MPA network which, through the use of multiple use areas, recognizes that the South-east is a critical petroleum production area for Australia," Campbell said. "The new MPA network will not prevent prospective oil and gas areas from being explored and developed."

For the first time the geological storage of carbon dioxide has been designated as an allowable use in multiple use zones in MPAs. Carbon dioxide emissions will be captured, compressed into a liquid form and then injected under pressure into deep underground geological formations. The storage of carbon dioxide is one of the measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions as part of Australia's climate change strategy.

All or part of five of the Marine Protected Areas are zoned Multi-Use Zone B which permits mining exploration and development activities, recreational and charter fishing, shipping and general transit, scientific research and commercial tourism, but not commercial fishing.

The design of the MPA network is the result of discussions with stakeholders in industrial sectors that intensified after the MPA proposal was released in December 2005.

"Since I released the proposed network last December, we have made more than 20 adjustments to boundaries and zoning that will reduce the impact on commercial fishing by more than 90 percent," said Campbell.

Environmentalists object to permitting industrial activities in the Marine Protected Areas, saying that it weakens the protective system.

WWF-Australia Conservation Director Dr. Ray Nias said, "These 13 new Marine Protected Areas for the south-east are a significant contribution to the protection of marine biodiversity in Australia, and certainly impressive by world standards, but they represent a major concession to oil, gas and fishing interests."

Freycinet

The waters off Tasmania’s East Coast form the Freycinet Marine Protected Area which will be a Strict Nature Zone with no industrial use permitted. (Photo courtesy Bush Heritage)
WWF observes that only around 10 percent of the total area will be fully protected from all extractive uses, which makes the MPA system far from being comprehensive, adequate or representative.

"The result was heavily influenced by industry stakeholders and has left a number of obvious omissions - such as very low level of protection of the shallower coastal shelf, Bass Strait and the Cascades in particular - where a significant amount of the region's biodiversity is likely to occur," Dr. Nias said.

WWF is pleased to see high levels of protection for the Tasman fracture that provides the connection with colder waters to the south. The protection now extends up the mouth of the Murray River and up onto the shelf, capturing shallow water biodiversity and flows of nutrients from the freshwater to the deep marine.

Senator Campbell said that in addition to the environmental protection afforded by the new MPA network, extensive fisheries closures being implemented by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority, such as the proposed closure of Bass Strait to bottom trawling, would have a positive impact on the marine environment.

The fisheries changes are included in the Australian Government's $220 million Securing Our Fishing Future package, also announced Friday.

Minister for Fisheries and Conservation Senator Eric Abetz called the final MPA designations a "win-win for fishers and for conservation."

Abetz noted that the impact of the Marine Protected Areas on the scallop industry has been "entirely removed.”

Fishermen impacted by the creation of the MPA network may be able to obtain assistance under the Securing Our Fishing Future package - including those eligible to participate in the fishing concession buyout being conducted by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.

Bass Strait

Dolphins in the shallow Bass Strait that separates the island state of Tasmania from mainland Australia. Only a small portion of the Bass Strait is protected. (Photo courtesy Resolution Adventures)
WWF welcomes a provision that allows for upgrading protection levels in many areas but is disappointed that zones closed to commercial fishing are not also closed to recreational fishing.

"This is a good start to building a safety net for marine biodiversity in the south-east region, but there are some big holes in the net," Dr. Nias said.

Senator Campbell said, "The new MPA network cannot be viewed in isolation from the significant steps this government is taking to get our fisheries onto a truly sustainable basis and to inject a strong environmental protection ethos into fisheries management."

The development of the South-east MPAs started about three years ago and was accelerated in December 2005, when the government released a candidate network of MPAs for consultation.

The independent Scientific Peer Review Panel, which was established to assess the Marine Protected Areas network was chaired by Dr. Ian Poiner, director of the Australian Institute of Marine Science. The panel indicated it would like to see even greater environmental protection provided in the designated areas.

That said, the panel concluded that the MPA network was a "significant and important step towards a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of MPAs and represents a major advance in biodiversity conservation in the South-east region."

WWF would like to see a stronger role for science in designating the MPAs in the rest of Australia's waters. "The major lesson from this exercise is this: we must start with a stronger foundation in science, which has been a major factor in the success of the Great Barrier Reef MPA process. Strong and independent scientific advice is the best safeguard for biodiversity in regional marine planning," Dr. Nias said.

The government will soon start a statutory process to have each MPA declared as a Commonwealth reserve. Further information on this process and the Australian Government's Marine Protected Areas program is available at: http://www.deh.gov.au/coasts/mpa/index.html

See a map of the MPAs at: http://www.deh.gov.au/coasts/mpa/southeast/index.html

Further information about the Securing Our Fishing Future package is found at: http://www.afma.gov.au/securing/direction.htm#management