By Stuart Kininmonth
Last month found me sailing to the coral sea reefs. I was in the middle of nowhere, not a care in the world; one kilometre of water underneath, no land or reefs for many miles and a fair wind giving life to the sails. As usual my thoughts drifted across the horizon as I settled into the rhythmic pattern of this ocean world. I glanced at the plotter and realised I could be in trouble. I raced back to the stern and began frantically pulling in my trawling line.
The empty lure clanged on the cockpit floor as I watched the yacht cross the invisible line into the ‘green’ no fishing zone. As a cruising sailor I now have to carefully watch what I do in all parts of Australian waters thanks to a major effort to preserve our marine world. Is this imposition on the cruising lifestyle reasonable? Should we support or fight these administrative restrictions?
The Federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke announced recently that “Australia’s marine reserves will increases from 27 to 60 under the new scheme, covering more than 3 million sq. km., or one third of the country’s waters,” (Reuters,14th June, 2012). In one swift move the government has implemented the “biggest step the globe has ever seen” in terms of ocean conservation. Few of us would argue that we don’t want our wonderful ocean to decline. So why is this so controversial at the moment?
Are our fish in such trouble that we need to allocate one third of the area as no take? I asked Dr Elizabeth Fulton, leader of the CSIRO Marine Ecosystem Modelling Group, who is an expert in fisheries dynamics. With bounding energy she replied, “there are some overfished species in Australia but the majority are already sustainably fished or being carefully managed to recover.” Sounds like consuming Australian fish is not going to lead to digestive guilt, so do we need these new reserves then? Dr Fulton explained “reserves are a necessary part of fishery management but not the complete solution. There are so many different ways to fish and the marine world is so complicated that no one strategy will work. Reserves based on science can only be good for environment and society.”
How sure are we that we have got the science of fishing management right? Speaking to Professor of Economics Rashid Sumaila, he suggests that “reserves are an excellent insurance policy in case we don’t get it right!” As an international specialist in fisheries economics he is fully aware that our knowledge of the fish stocks is imperfect and that careful planning is required.
Time to seek the opinion of the leading expert in this field. Professor Hugh Possingham recently addressed the South Australian government and said that “scientifically based conservation plans must be comprehensive (a bit of everything), adequate (enough area), representative (reflects the proportions found) and efficient (least cost to society).” He stresses that the efficiency part is very important and that good plans “minimise the economic impact” and that planners “go out of the way to avoid identified fishing areas.” However he remains critical of the new zone locations and certainly, looking at the maps, large no take areas are commonly situated in remote very deep waters where few people would ever visit, let alone fish. Professor Possingham stresses that at the end of the day its about biodiversity, not just about the fish.
But clearly being able to catch fish is in everyones mind. However research by Dr Hugo Harrison from James Cook University found that fish that live safely in ‘green’ zones contributed a disproportionally large number of the young fish to the nearby ‘fishing’ zones! Examining the genetics of thousands of adult coral trout and stripey snapper and then the offspring, they were able to resolve where the parents were located. He states in his publication (Current Biology 2012, 22, 1023–1028 ) that “our results provide compelling evidence that adequately protected reserve networks can make a significant contribution to the replenishment of populations on both reserve and fished reefs at a scale that benefits local stakeholders.” So it looks like from a fishing perspective, that the more green zones the better for everyone, including, it seems, the fish.
But not everyone agrees. Boating Industry Alliance Australia General Manager, Nik Parker, said “There is no scientific evidence to support the marine reserve system as planned” in a recent press release (19 June 2012). This seems to contrast what many Australian researchers are saying. Dr Robin Beaman, a marine geologist at James Cook University says “I can vouch for the huge effort that government agencies and other organisations have put into trying to understanding the ecological values of this vast area” (in the prestigious publication called Nature on 29 November 2011).
The problem of fully understanding where to place the reserves seems to lie with the vast size of the Australian marine territory. The federal Department of the Environment clearly states that existing information that formed the basis of the marine bioregions (called the Integrated Marine and Coastal Regionalisation of Australia if you want to impress the next beach party) was used to make the decisions. There is little doubt that more information would be useful but it takes time and money to improve and time is running out for some fish species. The department also used information from experts and information on how people used the environment. Careful juggling of the zone locations has minimised the impact on fishing activities. In fact the aim of the zoning exercise, as stressed by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was to ensure that just 1% of recreational fishing will be affected (Guardian 14 June 2012). Politicians face the unenviable task of implementing laws that nobody appears to like.
So will it have any other effects on the cruising community? Unless you plan to anchor and set up a mining or drilling operation or drag a large net behind you then there are few changes to the cruising lifestyle. Yachts can traverse and anchor in all the usual locations except for a small handful of restricted areas, like One Tree Island scientific zone.
In many respects there are long term benefits for everyone who cruisers. On the international arena each country wants to better the other in terms of economics, life style and environmental protection. As Australia lifts the benchmark for marine protection then we should see more reserves being put in place around the world and then hopefully see more fish at those wonderful places that presently are showing signs of collapse.
As I now sail across the protected zone I can only smile as I watch a mackerel leap out of the water chasing a school of bait fish. My sons remind me that the future is worth protecting and that some small restrictions may serve to act as a much needed insurance policy.
Stuart Kininmonth is a marine ecologist based on Magnetic Island in Townsville