Opening image: The sunburnt faces of Wadawurrung Country are met by only warmer and warmer waters. Photo Katey Shearer

Girt by Rising, Warming, Depleting Sea: The Case for Marine Protection in Australia

The ocean surrounding Australia in many ways defines it, to the rest of the world and to Australians themselves. But below the surface, this ocean is quietly, steadily being impacted by a warming climate, overfishing, pollution, and industrialisation. Ultimately, the only way to save it is to protect enough of it, in a network of critical habitats right around the country, in the right places, in the right way. Adele Pedder is the Protected Areas Manager with the Australian Marine Conservation Society, and in this interview with Ula Majewski, outlines the status quo of ocean protection in Australia… and what needs to change.


UM: Why is the ocean so important?

AP: Australians underestimate the importance of our oceans. Our ocean estate is larger than our land estate. A lot of it is underwater and unseen, but the ocean is key to our survival. It's an essential carbon sink, the mangroves clean our waters, and fish are an important food supply, especially for First Nations peoples. The ocean is important for our economies and local jobs and it's great for our human wellbeing. I'm on and in the water at least three times a week, mostly paddling an outrigger canoe. The ocean makes me a better person, that's for sure.

Adele Pedder and her fellow outrigger canoe paddlers. "The ocean makes me a better person, that's for sure." Photos supplied.

What are the most critical threats that our ocean is facing right now?
Here in Australia, climate change is the greatest threat to the health of the ocean, but we’re seeing cumulative impacts from different threats. If you have climate change combined with overfishing, combined with water pollution off the land, that's when you'll see the worst decline in the ocean’s health. This is one of the most important reasons why marine parks are a good solution for ocean health — they build resilience on the face of multiple impacts. For example, the areas that have recovered best from coral bleaching events on the Great Barrier Reef are the areas that have been protected from other impacts like fishing and pollution. Marine parks support ecosystem resilience, so if they do get hit by a climate event or a high pollution event, or if a section of the ecosystem — like a predator fish population — is taken out, that environment will recover better. It has the best fighting chance.

Science shows that when you put in fully protected marine parks, fish populations increase and spill over. They support a healthy and sustainable fishing industry. Photo Perrin James

How did you end up here?
My family has always been passionate about looking after the marine environment. I grew up in Victoria, but by year ten, we were living on a boat in Queensland, and I was doing school by correspondence. My parents had a great love for the ocean. We would sail around and arrive at a completely deserted island — in my youth, that was my playground. We had these unique and extraordinary experiences that change you as a person forever. I went on to study marine science at James Cook University, but I switched to advocacy and politics when it became apparent it was the politicians who were making the decisions which determined the health, or otherwise, of the marine environment.

What’s the most exciting work that you’re doing with the Australian Marine Conservation Society right now?
We’re doing a lot of amazing work across so many areas, so it’s hard to choose. I am excited about working with Aboriginal Traditional Owners on protection of Sea Country. In the Northern Territory and the Kimberley coast there’s some fantastic examples of new advancements in Aboriginal people leading in the development of the protection of their Sea Country. We have co-designed marine parks and Sea Country Indigenous Protected Areas and we’re working to better incorporate Indigenous knowledge into the planning, management, and protection regimes. We’d like to see these types of models rolled out in other parts of the country. Another thing that excites me is the GoodFish Sustainable Seafood Guide, which is working with consumers of seafood to have demand-driven changes to improve sustainability of the industry. A lot of people want to know where the fish comes from, so they can make an informed choice.

Our ocean, and its inhabitants, need full protection. "Partially protected reserves won't deliver the biodiversity conservation that Australia, and the world, needs," says Pedder. Photo Ula Majewski

What’s the current state of play for marine protection in Australia?
We have more than 40 per cent of our ocean in marine parks, but many of those marine parks have low levels of protection. The majority remains open to impacting activities like commercial fishing. Science says that we need at least 30 per cent of our oceans to be fully protected from all exploitative impacts by 2030 and we do have a commitment from our federal government to meet this goal, so we’re on the right path There are other factors which are key — like connectivity and representativeness — to make sure that our marine park system is high quality. We're watching the decline of our oceans, so we have no time to waste. Right now, the science is very clear — we must act now.

Why is full protection so important?
Fully protected marine areas which exclude all extractive activity, but allow for non-impacting activities like swimming, diving, surfing, and sailing, are essential to conserve biodiversity and maintain resilient ecosystems. That's what the science has shown. We need at least 30 per cent of our ocean fully protected. Partially protected reserves won't deliver the biodiversity conservation that Australia, and the world, needs.

Can you explain what connectivity and representativeness mean?
Let’s look at an on-land example. You can have small pockets of bush protected, but if there's no way for your animals to move between them safely, then the system lacks connectivity and will fail. Systems need to have connections to enable movements, especially in the fluid marine environment. Animals migrate and coral spawn moves with the currents, for example. We need to make sure that the design of the marine park network allows for that connectivity, to ensure that the ecosystem can function properly. Representative protection means protecting examples of the diversity of the marine environments. Historically in Australia, too many decisions were made to put marine parks in places where there weren’t other interests, where they wouldn't conflict, for example, with some commercial fishing or oil and gas activities. They weren’t based on science, so now we need to get the balance right. This means increasing the highly protected areas where biodiversity needs it. Australia’s ocean is divided up into bioregions, which characterise different types of marine environments. It’s important to properly protect a representative example of each of those different environments.

The existing South-east Marine Parks Network covers 700,000 square kilometres, stretching from the NSW south coast right around to the coast of South Australia, above. Photo SA Rips

What’s happening, right now, with the politics of ocean protection in Australia?
So far, the federal Labor government has been sending all the right signals. We've got strong commitments under the Global Biodiversity Framework, and we're seeing our environment minister saying things like “ambition is our only option” on oceans. We've also had some great conservation outcomes, like the huge expansion of the Macquarie Island Marine Park. Our work to support the federal government to deliver strong conservation outcomes for our oceans is ongoing. Right now, I’m focused on the review of the South-east Marine Park Network, as we know that we will need at least a doubling of highly protected areas in that network. We're also engaging in the development of the management plans for the Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands Marine Parks. As for states and territories, it's a mixed bag. In Western Australia, for example, they've implemented the Great Kimberley Marine Park and they've got a process underway for the South Coast Marine Park. They have a lot of their waters protected, including Ningaloo. But there are other parts of the country which are lagging behind, such as the Northern Territory. Some states are doing quite well, but there’s others that certainly need to play catch up.

Could you explain the difference between state and Commonwealth waters?
State waters are the inshore waters. They go out to three nautical miles and that includes islands. For example, off Tasmania they've got a range of islands, so you travel out to that island and then go out another three nautical miles and then you're in Commonwealth waters which are managed by the federal government and where we see the Commonwealth Marine Park Network.

Tell us about the South-east Marine Park Network — where is it, why is it important and what’s the situation at the moment?
Right now, the South-east Marine Park Network is going through a statutory review. The marine park network is within the offshore Commonwealth waters of the South-east marine region, which runs from southern New South Wales, all the way along the Victorian coast across to South Australia, and all the way around Tasmania. It covers quite a large area and it's where a lot of people live. It was established in 2007 and is therefore well overdue for renewal. It's a unique area — there's three different oceans that merge here and cause a massive upwelling of nutrients. It's also home to a portion of the Great Southern Reef, and it supports a wide variety of animals, including whales, dolphins, and many kinds of seabirds. Right now, only 9 per cent of these waters are in highly protected marine sanctuary zones, which is completely inadequate to protect the unique values of the area. We're seeing this review as an opportunity to increase protections in this area. We know that we need to, at the very least, double the area protected within highly protected marine sanctuaries.

Are there threats to the health of these south-east marine ecosystems that are specific to this part of the world?

The south-east is particularly vulnerable to climate change impacts. These waters are warming at a rate up to four times the global average. It's also a key commercial fishing area. The oil and gas sectors are active in the area and have proposals on the table to significantly expand, and even to conduct seismic testing inside marine parks. This is a matter for great concern. We're also seeing proposals for expansion in offshore renewable energies, and that's a new sector, which has the potential to have significant environmental impacts as well. Industrial scale activities should not be occurring inside marine parks.

Full protection of a marine area still affords a balance of non-harmful human activity… which includes surfing. Belinda Baggs on Wadawurrung Country. Photo Zoe Strapp

So, what does full marine protection mean for small local fishing communities?
A lot of coastal communities are reliant on their marine environments, first and foremost. They depend on tourism, including recreational fishing, which relies on a healthy marine system. Science shows that when you put in fully protected marine parks, fish populations increase and spill over. They support a healthy and sustainable fishing industry. We have seen disinformation campaigns, but the science clearly shows that fully protected marine areas are not only good for fish populations but necessary for ecosystem health. The work that needs to happen is more of a journey with local communities to make sure that people have access to information. We can look across Australia and point to any marine park and its success story — how it's supported regional communities and how it supports sustainable commercial and recreational fishing. You can go from Ningaloo on the west coast to the Great Kimberley in the north. The Great Barrier Reef, the Solitary Islands, and so on. The proof is in the pudding that protecting these areas have been good for local communities.

What gets you out of bed in the morning after all of these years working for marine protection?
Our marine backyard needs people to get out there and defend it. It’s having a love for our marine backyard and wanting to be a voice for it, because it doesn't have one of its own. The ocean can't go and knock on the Environment Minister’s door, but I can. That’s what gets me out of bed each day.

"Right now, only 9 per cent of (Australian) waters are in highly protected marine sanctuary zones, which is completely inadequate to protect the unique values of the area," says Adele Pedder. The ocean off south-east Lutruwita (above) is an area largely unprotected, and currently experiencing significant change due to the impacts of climate change. Photo Ula Majewski

If you care about the ocean, what is the most important thing you can do right now?
The most important thing is for people to know that their voice counts. Political decision makers do take note when people are doing submissions, petitions or writing emails to their office. The most important thing is that people realise the power of their voice and use it.

Find out more about the Australian Marine Conservation Society here.

Opening image: The sunburnt faces of Wadawurrung Country are met by only warmer and warmer waters. Photo Katey Shearer


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