12/05/2011 - 00:00

Doubts remain over feds’ marine park plan

12/05/2011 - 00:00


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A diluted south-west marine park proposal still has WA interests on edge.

Doubts remain over feds’ marine park plan

ENVIRONMENT Minister Tony Burke last week outlined a series of proposed marine parks and special-use zones in 1.3 million square kilometres of Commonwealth waters off Western Australia’s southern coast, from Shark Bay around to the Great Australian Bight, leaving a lot more blue sea than many in the state had feared.

Nevertheless, a huge chunk of WA’s ocean may be restricted from commercial exploitation under a planned national marine park, which is bigger than 13 marine reserves created off the nation’s south-east.

Mr Burke is clearly operating in a different political environment than his predecessor, Peter Garrett, whose ambit claim on the waters off the state had raised big concerns in a state that has little political clout at a federal level due to the lack of marginal coastline seats with a significant commercial marine sector.

The conservationist movement, with the financial backing of giant US philanthropic groups the Pew Charitable Trusts and The Nature Conservancy, had campaigned to lock away 20-30 per cent of each distinct marine environment as a no-take zone.

Against this, state and commercial interests argued the strong track record for sustainability in the state’s waters, with the fishing sector seen as a world leader. The WA government has also been very active creating marine parks and restricting commercial fishing in its own waters, out to 5.5km from the coast.

Despite some relief that heavy restrictions were avoided across the full spectrum of marine bioregions, industry and state government officials are nervous about the precedent the south-western plan could set for the next marine plan, set to encompass WA’s far more commercially sensitive northern waters.

The oil industry has a more difficult battle than fishing due to major recent accidents, including the Montara well explosion off the Kimberley coast and last year’s Gulf of Mexico disaster. Nevertheless, the nation’s reliance on the sector has never been higher and it has an enviable safety record off the Pilbara coast after decades of development.

While Mr Burke’s plan for the south-west has recommended some localised trawling restrictions as part of the draft marine bioregional plan –which will affect commercial fishing and the state’s supply of certain products such as scallops – the biggest issue appears to be potential hindrance to future economic development.

A big national park off the state’s south-west tip, starting well west of Cape Leeuwin and wrapping around the coastline past Albany, is seen as the greatest risk by those in both the fishing and oil industries.

The proposed South-west Corner Commonwealth Marine Reserve is 322,380sqkm in size, with the federal government wanting to make more than three quarters of that, or 249,180sqkm, a heavily restricted national park.

While the overall Commonwealth environmental ocean grab off WA may well have been scaled back from what was expected, it is worth noting that in the completed south-east region, 13 marine reserves covering just 227,000sqkm were created off South Australia, Tasmania and Victoria. This is less than half what the federal government proposes for WA’s southern coastline.

WA Fishing Industry Council principal executive officer Guy Leyland said the deep waters off the southern coast had great potential for the industry, despite the rugged nature of the region’s seas.

“It seems obscene to cauterise a huge area off the coast of WA,” Mr Leyland said.

He doubted such a big national park was justified by the science.

Publically, the oil industry welcomed Mr Burke’s announcement, and stated it would be working with the federal government over the following three-month consultation period to ensure the economic potential of the region was balanced with the need for conservation.

The Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association said it welcomed the opportunity to work with the federal government as it had with the development of the marine parks in eastern waters.

The south-west coast is viewed as potentially a significant petroleum province, but the Montara explosion and resulting oil slick has raised concerns in the community about the risk to the marine environment along the southern coastline, a popular tourist destination.

In June last year, the federal government controversially released oil and gas exploration permits in the Mentelle Basin off Margaret River before the results of its Montara inquiry were made public.

The oil industry appears satisfied that there is no overlap of existing permits with the proposed marine park and just one small area of prospectivity has been claimed.

However, industry representatives did offer some caution due to the fact that the south-western corner marine reserve did overlay an area of multiple use over existing oil exploration permits. While exploration and production would be allowed, it is not known what changes to the approval process might result from the Commonwealth plan.


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