Sydney’s blue backyard is central to our way of life, reputation and economy, yet less than 1% of the harbour cities coastal waters are protected. The NSW government has dragged the anchor on meaningful marine protection in NSW for 6 years, ignoring evidence and stalling their own reform process initiated three Premiers ago in 2010. Key stakeholders fatigued by years of consultation with no substantive progress to show for it, fear there is little true commitment from this government to strengthen marine protection.Environment groups have just released their mid-term report on the NSW government’s performance measured on eight important areas that were presented to politicians at the 2015 election. The government performs well on only one category, pollution and waste—thanks largely to its commitment to a container deposit scheme, broadly welcomed and long overdue. So let’s look at their record on another important category, Marine Protection in more detail.
Like all other environmental policy debates within the NSW Coalition Party room, progressive marine policy hits familiar choppy waters: a Liberal party unwilling or unable to stand firm on the environment, while the National party clutches the tiller and navigates via an entrenched ideology impervious to evidence and community views. Despite quiet sympathy for stronger environmental protection from many Liberal MPs, and the overwhelming community support for it, the NSW Government continues to procrastinate on creating more Marine Protected Areas. The rudderless ship of the responsible Ministers (Niall Blair, the National Party Minister for Primary Industries, and the 3 short term Liberal Environment Ministers since 2010) is a major reason for this policy failure.
Inaction on marine protection now will make the job harder and more expensive in the long term. For example, Sydney’s coast, referred to as the Hawkesbury Shelf bioregion has a unique mix of warm tropical waters from the north and colder southern currents, meaning our waters are home to an enormous range of marine plants and animals. Yet our incredible marine life is feeling the pressure on a number of fronts. A busy harbour, marine pollution, population growth and over-fishing are just a few of the complex challenges to consider. An appropriately designed and funded marine park in this region would build resilience and protection by addressing these challenges through improved planning, funding, communication and adaptive management.
Marine protected areas that include sanctuary (no-take) zones, are recognised around the world as one of the best management responses that we have to tackle the challenge of marrying conservation and recreation. These strategies work. Fishing, conservation and marine tourism go hand-in-hand in the established marine parks at Cape Byron, the Solitary Islands, Port Stephens-Great Lakes, Jervis Bay, Batemans Bay and out at Lord Howe Island. Studies show that the great majority of local recreational fishers in NSW’s marine parks support these parks including their sanctuary zones. Most instinctively know what the science tells us: that sanctuary zones mean bigger fish and more of them. Many thousands of Sydney anglers visit these locations every year for their excellent fishing, and many thousands also enjoy snorkelling and scuba diving – wouldn’t it be great to have similarly well-managed waters year-round in Sydney?
Looking at the bigger picture, Australia has committed to establishing a representative system of Marine Reserves as part of our international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP 1994). This requires representation of all key habitats in near-shore (state) and offshore (Commonwealth) waters in order to be truly representative.
Whilst previous NSW governments have made some progress in the establishment of Marine Reserves, the current system of reserves falls far short of our international obligations and is insufficient to conserve biodiversity. NSW has six Marine Parks and 12 Aquatic Reserves, with the total sanctuary area in these reserves less than 7% of state waters. Two bioregions in NSW – the Hawkesbury Shelf (Sydney) and Twofold Shelf – have no large Marine Park to protect their unique range of habitats and marine communities.
The Australian Marine Science Association Position Statement on Marine Protected Areas states that “a figure of 10% under ‘no-take’ protection would slow but not prevent loss of biodiversity. The current no-take level in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park of 33% is more likely to achieve substantial and sustained biodiversity conservation benefits”. This is in agreement with the 2016 target set by the IUCN of 30% of the world’s oceans under high levels of protection by 2030.
The Coalition government must resolve its internal conflict, accept the scientific evidence and acknowledge the overwhelming community support for strengthening marine protection. This is called a social licence. So stop fighting and chart a new course to fulfil your obligations to protect our marine heritage.
The National Parks Association of NSW recommends immediate action by the NSW Government to:
- Appoint the Environment Minister to captain these reforms not a primary industry minister.
- Establish large Marine Parks in the Hawkesbury bioregion and, in conjunction with the Victorian government, the Twofold shelf bioregion
- Establish sanctuary zones in these Marine Parks based on the latest scientific evidence on habitats, communities and rare and threatened species, to ensure that the full range of these ecological values is covered in sanctuary zones.
- Work with the community to ensure that the establishment of Marine Parks and zones is understood, but that the integrity of the conservation values of these zones is not compromised by short-term social, political or economic interests.
- Ensure that a comprehensive, adequate and representative (CAR) coverage of habitats and communities is achieved within sanctuary zones in all NSW Marine Parks by 2020
- Integrate management plans for threatened species, such as the grey nurse shark and black cod, into Marine Park zone design to ensure that sanctuary zones cover the known aggregation areas and critical habitats of these species.
- Phase out commercial trawling currently permitted in all bar one marine park.
- Publish comprehensive reports into the status of NSW fisheries. The most recent report was completed in 2008-09 leaving the public unaware of potential conservation issues.
Note: The Sydney Harbour would become a marine park that extends from Pittwater to Port Hacking under an elected Labor Government, recently reconfirmed my Opposition Leader Luke Foley.