Marine conservation, with a catch

When countless numbers of Australians cast their fishing lines into coastal waters this summer and bring home a catch, it must seem inconceivable that Australia has a problem with the stock of fish in its surrounding seas and oceans.

After all, the marine area controlled by Australia covers 14 million sq km – almost twice the size of its land mass.

This vast empire is one of the biggest in the world, but efforts are now being made to turn more of it into conservation zones where fishing would be banned entirely or restricted.

Marine parks have been created off the coast of Tasmania and Victoria, and a series of no-take or mixed-use marine reserves is proposed all along the east coast, covering 2.4 million sq km.

They would stretch from Torres Strait north of Queensland to southern NSW, and as far east as Norfolk Island.

Additional areas slated for parks can be found in southwest and northwest Western Australia, and a northern area off the coast of Darwin and in the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Effectively, the Australian continent will be encircled by five bio-regions each containing extensive marine parks.

The policy was launched in 2009 by former environment minister Peter Garrett, but it drew considerable flak from the well-organised tinny-lobby and others during the federal election campaign. However, Garrett’s successor, Tony Burke, has raised expectations among green groups that he will deliver substantially on this agenda.

One of the conservationists’ great hopes is for an enormous no-take zone in the Coral Sea, covering as much as 1 million sq km. This would be almost 10 times the no-take zone with the biggest marine park created so far, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

The conservation campaign has been aided by the support of prominent author Tim Winton, who backed the creation of marine parks while relaunching his “coastal memoir”, Land’s Edge. Winton argues that marine parks are needed because our oceans are “fragile and in trouble”.

“We still have the notion that the ocean is inexhaustible, irrepressible and indestructible, that it can go on forever, survive anything you drag out of it and everything you tip into it. Well, most coastal people’s experience and the overwhelming science shows that’s just not true,” Winton tells The Australian.

But Winton’s view is challenged by new research indicating that fish stocks have shown a remarkable recovery in recent years.

A recent report by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics confirms a sharp recovery in fish stocks in the 2008 and 2009 surveys. ABARE’s Fishery Status Reports assess 101 fish stocks managed by the federal government. The surveys had recorded a steady decline since their inception in 1992, but in 2008 and in 2009 “this trend was strongly reversed, with 15 stocks being removed from an uncertain ‘over-fished’ status and 21 stocks from an uncertain ‘over-fishing’ status in 2009”, says ABARE’s deputy executive director Paul Morris. But this still leaves of 48 fish species in trouble, most notably deep-sea tuna such as big eye, which is being hammered by foreign fleets in the Pacific.

This striking improvement indicates that cuts to fishing quotas introduced by the Australian Fisheries Management Authority are working to reverse the long-term decline.

Further improvements can be expected as more marine parks are created.

Fish stocks have also bounced back sharply in the Great Barrier Reef after a series of no-take zones were created in 2004.