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Marine Sanctuaries Speech

Speeches in Parliament
Penny Wright 21 Jun 2012

Senator WRIGHT (South Australia) (16:00): I rise to make a contribution to this debate because I cannot stay silent in the face of the scaremongering and hysteria being peddled by some unscrupulous elements of the fishing sector, fanned by equally unscrupulous and opportunistic claims from some members of the coalition of the Liberal and National parties. The recent announcement by the environment minister of a national network of marine reserves is certainly a substantial and major step forward for marine conservation in Australia and globally. The announcement has been a long time in the making and it will benefit both current and future generations. That said, it could certainly have gone further in many respects and it almost totally leaves the field clear for oil and gas exploration in some of our most precious environments. What is clear is that this marine reserves announcement will not see the end of recreational or commercial fishing as we know it, as some doomsayers would have us believe.

The Australian Greens have always supported a science based approach to marine sanctuaries and the science increasingly indicates a need for urgent action on a national and global scale if our children's children are to know oceans that support the marine life that we have known, and why would we wish any less for them? In 2011, an international panel of marine scientists associated with the International Program on the State of the Ocean met to review the science at Oxford University and issued a stark warning that we would be foolish not to heed: 'The world's oceans are at risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.' World scientific opinion is that 20 per cent of the oceans need to be fully protected from fishing, and here in Australia today we are whipping ourselves into a frenzy over a proposal to declare less than one per cent off limits from fishing.

Let us step back from the hyperbole and remember that in the end those concerned about conservation, those of us who wish to ensure that we have species with us into the future, and the fishing industry, who must share the same goal, surely, do have a common objective—namely, healthy and resilient ecosystems that support the sustainable marine industries and thriving regional communities. Surely that is what we would all be wanting. Last week's announcement will start us on the path to this goal. There is clear world evidence that marine parks are effective to achieve this. The science shows that protecting areas of oceans works. Not only do marine sanctuaries play a vital role in protecting fish stocks for the future by protecting critical feeding areas; they also insure fishing against the increasing threat posed by rampant oil and gas exploration and production. It is in this area where the minister's announcement is sadly lacking.

But, first, let me turn to my home state of South Australia and look at the effects on fishers there. The vast bulk of recreational fishing in South Australia is conducted in Gulf St Vincent and Spencer Gulf. These gulfs are part of the state waters and not covered by the recent announcement of Commonwealth marine parks. Elsewhere in South Australia, Commonwealth waters are more than three nautical miles offshore, again outside where most recreational fishing takes place. In terms of the no-take zones, these are few and far between off the South Australian coast and mostly more than 100 kilometres offshore. It is certainly a keen recreational fisher who would take his or her tinnie out beyond the 100-kilometre boundary to drop a line. Again, in terms of the impact on commercial fishing, this will also be minimal in South Australia. Many of the targeted species such as the critically endangered southern bluefin tuna, which is listed by the IUCN, are also migratory. That means they do not observe neat boundaries on a map but will continue to be caught outside the small protection zones in the Great Australian Bight.

All that said, I recognise that fishers are understandably concerned about the future. But it is important that those concerns are based on the facts and can then be ameliorated by appropriate measures such as reasonable compensation. We have always had to make difficult decisions where we have become aware that industries that we have become used to are no longer sustainable, and whaling is a good example. If you visit Albany in Western Australia, you will see the remnants of what occurred when whaling was phased out. Obviously, some people are disproportionately affected by decisions made for the benefit of the entire community and they need to be looked after. In this climate of fear, it is important that we ensure that the truth does get in the way of the bad news story that some are determined, against logic, to propound.

The big cause for alarm with this announcement, as I foreshadowed, is the inexplicable failure of the minister to adequately protect some of our most precious places from the risks associated with gas and oil exploration. The Australian Greens are seriously concerned about the outcomes for the south-west, north-west and north when it comes to oil and gas. I am particularly concerned about the magnificent and highly significant marine region to the west and south of Kangaroo Island. This area has been designated a special purpose zone, which will allow recreational but not commercial fishing, but will also allow mining, oil and gas activities. The Montara oil spill and the Gulf of Mexico oil spills, still very, very fresh in our minds, show that the risks of oil and gas exploration are unacceptably high in important marine environments. But, effectively, with this announcement, oil and gas have been given a free ride. That is something that the fishing sector should get seriously angry about. We know that oil and gas fields do not abide by boundaries. Despite a small zone that excludes oil and gas from a section of the Margaret River coast, the area right next door still remains vulnerable to the risk of spills. We also know that activities associated with oil and gas exploration threaten marine species. Activities like seismic testing affect whales, causing physical injury, organ and hearing damage and haemorrhaging, which can ultimately result in death. Unfortunately, we have seen the influence of the oil, gas and resources lobby and I think the influence of the resources minister, in relation to this omission in the announcement made by the minister for the environment. The short-term gain of the resources boom has won out over long-term protection and responsible and sustainable industries. Fishing can be a sustainable industry if handled well, as well as tourism.

So what we feared has come true. The Kangaroo Island canyons will not be protected from the risk of oil and gas exploration and production. The Kangaroo Island Council, along with the rest of the community, are extremely worried. There is a rich environmental heritage on Kangaroo Island and in its surrounds and there is a thriving tourism industry. People come from far and wide to visit Kangaroo Island; this will be at risk through this exploration and ultimately production.

An oil spill would have the potential to devastate marine life in the Kangaroo Island canyons. They are a biodiversity hotspot. They are the life force of SA's marine productivity and biodiversity, with nutrient rich upwellings in the region that enhance the production of plankton communities, which are at the base of the food chain supporting seasonal aggregations of krill, small fish and squid, which in turn attracts sharks, medium and large predatory fish of commercial importance, marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and New Zealand fur seals, and seabirds. So an oil spill in that area would be absolutely devastating. The Kangaroo Island canyons are also one of the three recognised blue whale feeding grounds in Australia, but they are now open to the threat of an oil spill. As well as that, an oil spill would be devastating for Kangaroo Island in its social impacts. It would mean the loss of livelihoods of generational fishing families who fished and harvested oysters along the shoreline. They would have to ultimately leave the island as there would not be other work for them, and of course that would have an ongoing ripple effect throughout the community, affecting schools, businesses and community activities.

So at this point we have the job of deciding in this second decade of the 21st century what damage we are willing to do to our planet and what the future holds. We are still relying heavily on fossil fuels, which obviously the Greens say we should move away from, and unfortunately this is seeing us doing and being prepared to do more and more deepwater drilling in more and more hard-to-reach and pristine places. Ultimately we have to decide that there are some places on this planet that are just too precious to risk losing. So, just as we expect planning and development controls to protect our prime agricultural land from mining activities, marine bioregional planning should protect those areas which are the life force of Australia's marine productivity and biodiversity. The minister's announcement is a good start, but there is still a long way to go.

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