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Trawling the options: the struggle to safeguard our magnificent Great Barrier Reef from over fishing is now entering rougher waters.

MORE THAN TWO DECADES after the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park attained World Heritage Area status, it comes as a reality check that only a fraction of it enjoys high protection.

Despite its international status as a natural icon and place of inspiration, less than five per cent of this multiple-use Marine Park is protected from extractive activities. Commercial and recreational fishing is permitted in over 95 per cent of the park and 50 per cent is legally open to commercial trawling--from which by-catch of turtles is a listed threatening process.

Despite recent laudatory reforms such as trawl fishery closures and mandatory turtle exclusion devices, illegal and unsustainable practices continue in the Park. Since July last year, 58 commercial line vessels have been caught operating illegally in protected areas of the park. In May last year, a slick of dead fish stemming from discarded by-catch thrown overboard by trawlers was recorded measuring 600-1000 metres wide and about 3.5 kilometres long. The density of dead fish in the slick varied from two to 50 fish per square metre, said the Commonwealth's Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA).

However, over the next two years a battle will be fought over the future of the Reef. At stake is the health of its superlative corals and natural beauty, rare populations of dugongs and turtles, vast lagoon and seagrass beds and sandy continental shelves. It is an area described as one of the richest and most complex natural systems on earth. Not surprisingly, the issue has already split the fishing industry and has opened divisions among Coalition MPs.

In a potentially historic marine reform, the Howard government is now considering advice from an expert scientific committee to strengthen environmental protection of the Marine Park. Known as the Representative Areas Program (RAP), the idea is to create a network of marine sanctuaries throughout the entire Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. The Commonwealth's Marine Park covers 99.25 per cent of the WHA.

The independent advising committee has recommended that at least a total of 25 per cent of the Park should be protected in no-take reserves. These no-takes reserves allow recreation and tourism but ban all fishing and collecting.

The quantum is in line with the push by some of the world's leading marine scientists to fully protect 20 to 30 per cent of the globe's marine environment in no-take reserves--a call to arms for biodiversity. Grim new assessments of depleted global and local marine species and fish stocks are driving this global reform.

GBRMPA's scientific committee says this degree of legal protection is not an "ideal" amount for full protection. In fact, they claim, it is the minimum necessary to protect a representative sample of each bioregion and habitat of the Park.

"The Scientific Steering Committee believes the existing network of Green Zones [no-takes] in the GBRMP is insufficient to maintain the biological diversity and ecological integrity of the Great Barrier Reef into the future," reported the expert committee.

THE GREAT BARRIER REEF MARINE PARK features over 2,900 coral reefs; 940 islands and sandy cays; one third of the world's soft coral species; about 1,500 species of fish; six of the world's seven species of threatened marine turtles; and thousands of kilometres of seagrass meadows that support one of the world's most important dugong populations. The Park also encompasses the site of the largest green turtle breeding area in the world; 54 per cent of the world's mangrove diversity; nearly 400 species of sponges; and over 4,000 species of molluscs (shells). It is home to more than 30 species of mammals; breeding humpback whales; over 200 species of birds; and one of Australia's most significant seabird rookeries.

Essentially, GBRMPA's proposal for no-take protection would encompass a proportion of major turtle nesting and foraging sites, half of all high priority dugong habitat and 10 per cent of shallow and deepwater seagrass and algal locale.

The scientists' recommendations also include an inner and outer reef from the famed Capricorn-Bunker Mid Shelf, 20 per cent of continental island reef, 60 kilometres of coastal strip sand, 80 kilometres of high nutrient coastal strip, five per cent of sponge, solitary and soft coral fauna, and different sized reefs, ocean waters, channels, wave energy and cays. Traditional hunting, of species such as dugong, would continue to be taken by traditional inhabitants, says GBRMPA.

ACF's councillor for Queensland, Melissa Nursey-Bray, said, "The Foundation has called on the authority to ensure that nine core values are built into the sanctuaries' design. These involve special and unique places; biodiversity; evolution; geodiversity; aesthetics; viable populations and metapopulations; natural processes; connectivity and buffering."

Worldwide Fund for Nature GBR Campaigner Imogen Zethoven said such a network of sanctuaries would provide refuge for marine species on the seafloor and within the water column and allow degraded or damaged habitats to recover, if they have not already been irreversibly damaged.

"The sanctuaries should protect substantial areas of all representative habitats from trawling and other fishing pressures," she said.

NOT SURPRISINGLY, the plan faces fierce industry and daunting political opposition.

Queensland Seafood Industry Association (QSIA) spokesperson Nick Heath said the trawlers supported biodiversity protection but such a sweeping amount of no-takes was too high. "If 25 to 30 per cent is enacted the effect of displacing effort elsewhere in the park would not be good for the fishery or the park. It would also impact on the social fabric of coastal communities dependent upon fishing for their livelihoods," he told Habitat.

Heath felt that the arguments that no-takes benefitted fisheries were "scant at best" and QSIA was holding GBRMPA to its "assurances" that the no-takes would be implemented at the least cost to the fishery.

"Governments should focus their efforts on starting to regulate land-clearing and chemical run-off by agriculture in the GBR catchment," he said.

Queensland recreational fishing spokesperson and Sunfish Executive Officer David Batemen said fishermen objected to the prospect of stretches of coastline being out of bounds to fishing. "We think the existing level of five per cent is adequate but if fishing is out because of environmental impacts so should diving, tourism, collecting and any research not aimed at reef preservation," he said.

Mr Bateman has warned that if 25 per cent were to be protected, commercial effort could be displaced elsewhere in the park, causing conflict between recreational and commercial fishers. He recommends, "They should consider taking more commercial effort out."

GUARANTEEING THE BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY of the Park, though, is expected to ensure the productivity of the $250 million a year fishery that helps support some coastal Queensland towns. In addition, it will underpin the integrity of one of the country's main tourist attractions which generates $750 million a year.

James Cook University Associate Professor Garry Russ is urging commercial and recreational fishers to support GBRMPA's no-take plan as an "insurance policy against over-fishing". Professor Russ has been studying the effectiveness of no-take zones in fisheries management for the past 19 years. He says research has shown that green zones produced greater breeding populations of fish, larger fish and greater larval dispersion.

"Because the eggs and larvae of most reef fish can disperse over large areas, the end result is a healthier population, reef-wide," he said.

"It is vitally important that the fishing lobbies realise that the proposed new green zones are in their best long-term interests," he said.

Conflict minimisation is part of the brief of GBRMPA Conservation and World Heritage Director Jon Day. Mr Day told Habitat, "The sanctuaries would be designed to minimise detrimental and maximise beneficial social, economic and cultural impacts.

"The Park is under unprecedented pressures from increasing fishing effort and impacts, increased pollutant levels that showed little sign of abatement, coastal development, coral bleaching and simply over-use," he said.

Fish stocks are depleted in localised areas, up to 80 per cent of wetlands have been lost around most major rivers flowing into the Park, the seabed has been damaged from fishing and phosphate and nitrogen-laden river discharges have increased by 200-1500 per cent.

"Species suffering local depletion included dugong, the hawksbill turtle, the green turtle, the crested, lesser crested and sooty tern and targetted reef fish including the coral trout. Threatened species include the loggerhead turtle, the Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin, wild pearl shell and the black teat fish," said Mr Day.

He strongly believes that the Representative Areas Program will help counter these threats by removing the impact of extractive activities from representative examples of each of the broad scale habitats in the Park.

"The Green Zones or no-takes will promote biological diversity at the ecosystem, habitat, species, population and genetic levels, allow species to evolve and function undisturbed, provide an ecological safety margin against human-induced and natural disasters and provide a base from which threatened species or habitats can recover," he said.

RECENT DEVELOPMENTS OVERSEAS have sounded an all-too-clear warning. A fishless "dead-zone" has emerged in the Gulf of Mexico from urban and farm run-off, while the once sea bass- and wrasse-laden kelp forests off the coast of California have become "ghost habitats".

Meanwhile, despite the efforts of marine scientists, enormous gaps in our knowledge remain--GBRMPA estimates that over 50 per cent of Australia's marine species have yet to be described.

When the Park was initially created in 1975, ACF voiced its concerns about the need to protect the unique and disarming array of marine life within it, and developed a policy. Six years later, when the Reef was listed under the World Heritage Convention, trawling and fishing were well established and considered "reasonable uses" of the Park.

The time has come to seriously reconsider whether the extent to which such destructive impacts are sustainable, let alone consistent with the Park's status as a World Heritage Area.

Thank You from the Reef and ACF

We are pleased to report an overwhelming response to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority's call for public opinion on extending the protected areas of the Reef. ACF's member's and supporters were extremely active in voicing their concerns, submitting well over 3,500 submissions by the August 7 deadline.

From here, a Draft Zoning Plan will be produced, taking into account all public comments.

The next stage will be the second formal community participation phase. Here we will ask for your comments on the Draft Zoning Plan. The final stages of RAP are Ministerial and Parliamentary approval for the new zoning plan.

ACF will continue to work on the RAP at all stages to ensure the best possible protection for the Great Barrier Reef. We will also continue to oppose plans for oil exploration near the Marine Park and to send commercial shipping around, not through, the Reef area.

Many thanks for your substantial support so far.

Guy Healy is a freelance environment business writer and yachtie.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Australian Conservation Foundation
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Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Healy, Guy
Publication:Habitat Australia
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Oct 1, 2002
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