Australia has announced plans to create the world’s largest network of marine parks to protect ocean life, with limits placed on fishing and oil and gas exploration off the coast.
The new reserves would cover 3.1 million square kilometres, or more than one-third of Australian waters, taking in significant breeding and feeding grounds.
Today’s announcement, after years of planning and consultation, came ahead of the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development next week in Brazil, which the minority Labor government’s Environment Minister Tony Burke and Prime Minister Julia Gillard will attend.
“It’s time for the world to turn a corner on protection of our oceans,” Mr Burke said in the lead-up to the conference, which marks the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit that declared the environment a priority.
“And Australia today is leading that next step.” he added.
“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations.”
“It’s time for the world to turn a corner on protection of our oceans,” Mr Burke said as he announced the plans today.
The proposed network places limits on oil and gas exploration off Western Australia and extends reef protection in the Coral Sea.
The network will boost the number of reserves from 27 to 60, expanding protection of creatures such as the blue whale, green turtle, critically endangered populations of grey nurse sharks, and dugongs.
While some limits will be placed on energy companies, tracts of coast off Western Australia, where Shell and Woodside Petroleum recently won exploration permits, will still be open to oil and gas exploration.
Commercial fishing businesses will be hit hard, and are likely to receive millions of dollars in compensation.
The plan has drawn fire from commercial and recreational fishers, who say it goes too far, and from the Greens, who say it does not go far enough.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott says he is “instinctively against” anything which impinges on the rights of recreational fishermen.
“We know from this Government’s record that they can’t be trusted to get the consultation right, they can’t be trusted to get the implementation right, and often enough they can’t even be trusted to get the science right,” he said.
“Over the coming months, the government will consult the fishing industry and fisheries management agencies on the design and implementation of a fisheries adjustment assistance package,” said Mr Burke.
“Although the reserve network bans oil and gas exploration in the Coral Sea, the north west region has been left vulnerable to these threats,” said chief executive Don Henry.
“We will continue to work with governments, the community and other stakeholders to improve protection for areas that have not got the protection they need.”
Fremantle-based commercial fisherman Clayton Nelson employs 20 people and said new marine parks in his area would see him lose about 35 per cent of his business.
“It’s not a good day for us, I can’t hide from that.
“We’re going to lose access to a very benign fishery that we can supply local fresh product to the community.
“That’s going to be taken away not just from us, it’s going to be taken away from the community.”
Dean Logan from the Australian Marine Alliance said the plan would hurt commercial fishers.
“It’s basically saying to Australians you cannot be trusted to be good custodians of the environment,” he said.
Greens Senator Rachel Siewert said many of the many of the reserves off Australia’s north-west coast seemed to skirt around oil and gas exploration areas.
“The industry seems to have had a significant impact on determining where reserves will be,” she said.
Mr Burke described the “jewel in the crown” of the plan as being the Coral Sea off Queensland.
“People were saying we’d protected a lot of the Coral Sea in our proposal but people are asking us to really push the boundaries and cover some more reefs,” he said.
“Throughout the whole of the Coral Sea there is a ban on oil and gas and we’ve established a significant area around the Margaret River area where oil and gas will also be excluded.”
A final consultation period of 60 days is not scheduled with the new reserves expected to be officially declared before the end of the year.