This week, Australia’s parliament will decide whether to scuttle planned protections for its abundant waters.
Earlier this year, environment minister Josh Frydenberg announced plans to downgrade protections for more than 35 million hectares (about 86.5 million acres) across the country’s 44 marine parks. In response, opposition lawmakers have attempted to derail the government’s plans with various legislative maneuvers.
According to Frydenberg, the new plans demonstrate a “balanced and scientific evidence-based approach to ocean protection.”
This couldn’t be further from the truth, say a group of leading conservationists.
For Olive Andrews, an Australian scientist and marine program manager at Conservation International, the news of proposed downgrades hits close to home. “The Australian government’s marine park management plans ignore decades of science, and the advice of the government’s own independent science review,” she said.
The government’s proposal will downgrade more than 35 million hectares from “no-take zones” — meaning no fishing, mining, construction or extraction activities are allowed — to “habitat protection zones,” allowing fishing and other activities as long as they don’t interfere with the seafloor. While downgrading leaves the boundaries of the protected area intact, legally allowing increased human activities within the boundaries raises the question: How protected are the protected areas, actually?
Downgrading is one piece of a phenomenon known as PADDD, or protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement, where protected areas see their legal protections reduced or removed entirely. Mike Mascia, the world’s leading PADDD expert and senior social scientist at Conservation International, has identified more than 2,200 instances of legal downgrading of protected areas worldwide over the last century. The motivation for these legal changes, he says, are very rarely “pro-conservation.”
If the proposed downgrades pass, cautioned Mascia, they will signify a troubling milestone. “If these proposed changes are enacted into law,” he said, “they would collectively represent the most extensive downgrading of a protected area system that we have ever recorded, on land or sea.”
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This isn’t the first time Australia has considered downgrading its marine parks, a type of marine protected area (MPA). In 2012, the outgoing government established a network of MPAs, complete with legally binding management plans. In 2013, the incoming government led by Tony Abbott suspended management plans for the areas — that is, the plans weren’t enforced, but technically remained law. In July 2017, after a long scientific and governmental review, the government released a draft of its new plans, proposing significantly less protection. The most recent version? A reintroduction of those weak 2017 plans.
“This policy reversal sends the wrong message to other countries, including the United States, that are considering similar actions and to those neighboring countries in the Pacific region that are leaders in marine protection,” commented Andrews.
“Reducing protection zones negatively impacts the values of the Coral Sea Marine Park, for example, undermining a trans-boundary arrangement Australia has with New Caledonia” she said. “Countries such as Palau and the Cook Islands are exceeding their no-take protection targets by a long way, and they look to Australia as an important marine conservation partner. How will this affect them?”
In his statement of support for the proposed downgrades, Frydenberg compared the new plans to those originally proposed by the opposition. According to Frydenberg, “16 percent more of the total area of parks will be open to recreational fishing [and] 17 percent more of the total area of marine parks [will be] open to commercial fishing.” The government’s proposed downgrades come even as it announces US$ 379 million in new funding for the Great Barrier Reef.
For ʻAulani Wilhelm, senior vice president of oceans at Conservation International, the proposal could have ripple effects beyond just one country.
“Australia and the United States have been on the forefront of marine conservation for decades. They’ve pioneered innovations in small-scale and large-scale ocean conservation design, policy and management. They’ve invested in science that helps us understand what’s happening to the ocean — not just within their borders, but globally — and what we need to do to protect our waters,” said Wilhelm. Likening the current situation in Australia to similar proposals in the U.S., Wilhelm asked: “If these two giants of marine conservation are rethinking their commitments, what’s stopping other countries from doing the same?
“At this crucial point in history, when we’re facing the immediate impacts of a rapidly changing climate, the only thing we can do for our future is to protect oceans on a scale we’ve never attempted before. We cannot take these steps backward — humanity can’t afford it.”
Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor at Conservation International.
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