Australia was once a global champion of ocean conservation. In 2012 our network of marine protected areas covered over 3,000,000 square kilometres of ocean, right around the country. But in 2018, the Australian government downgraded the protection of these marine ecosystems by more than 1,000,000 square kilometres, opening up huge areas to offshore oil and gas and to destructive industrial trawling. This included an area in the Coral Sea three times the size of Victoria — the single greatest downgrade of a protected marine area anywhere in the world. It's time to change course and protect Australia’s ocean, for good.
The ocean is an amazing place.
It connects us all. Our shared seas are alive with the most extraordinary plants and animals, including us. We are a salty people — we surf and splash, dive, and sail. Our very existence depends on a thriving ocean. It feeds us and gives us life, breathing out about half of the oxygen that we breathe in and absorbing around one-third of the carbon pollution that we humans and our industries blow out. It acts as a giant salty thermostat for our climate, keeping global temperatures on an even keel. As Sylvia Earle puts it, "Everyone, everywhere is inextricably connected to and utterly dependent upon the existence of the sea.”
The ocean looks out for us, and we have a responsibility to do the same for our local marine places. This is not a new story. Down here in the south, and right around this vast island continent, First Nations people have been caring for and celebrating these unique saltwater ecosystems — their Sea Country — for over 65,000 years.
The Coral Sea is a vast universe of life… made up an infinite number of smaller, tiny universes. Photo Tāne Sinclair-Taylor
The waters surrounding Australia are home to the world’s largest living structure, the Great Barrier Reef, and the lesser known but equally remarkable Great Southern Reef, which stretches out along 8000 kilometres of coastline, from Kalbarri in the west right across to the far north of New South Wales. They are home to some of the most thriving and diverse ecosystems on the planet — from the epic cold water kelp forests of the south to the impossibly blue tropical seas and iridescent rainbow coral gardens of the Coral Sea, the very cradle of the Great Barrier Reef. Turtles and whales traverse this intricate network of ecosystems as they make their great oceanic migrations.
We are part of nature, and no matter how old or young we are, the ocean is one of our most amazing outdoor playgrounds. It’s a place that inspires wonder and awe, where we gravitate to when we need a quiet moment away from the busyness of our everyday lives. The ocean is where we go to daydream, to get active and connect with our local community (human or otherwise). A place to share sweet waves and big grins with the people we love.
The most beautiful marine ecosystems are often the most vulnerable to change. Photos (Left) Nico Smit and (Right) Dario Brönnimann
But the ocean is in crisis.
Around the globe, human-made climate change is supercharging a devastating conga line of threats to the ocean — marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, changes in ocean circulation, and a marked downturn in the availability of essential nutrients and dissolved oxygen for all the living creatures that depend upon them.
Meanwhile, overfishing and the degradation of important marine habitat — through destructive fishing practices like industrial bottom trawling, long lining, and gill netting — is decimating fish communities and endangered creatures like green turtles, who are indiscriminately netted and killed as bycatch.
Offshore oil and gas drilling and the catastrophic seismic blasting that precedes them is endangering marine life, from the very largest creatures like whales, down to tiny zooplankton that form the bottom of the food chain. The expansion of this industry around the country is risking some of Australia's most iconic marine areas, like World Heritage listed Ningaloo Reef and the great sea Countries of the south in Victoria and Lutruwita/Tasmania.
Beyond these, waves of plastic rubbish, crown of thorns starfish, and inappropriate coastal development are all smashing the integrity of our saltwater ecosystems. The ocean is in crisis, so what can we do?
If we want to set course to a future where the ocean can thrive, rolling out a science-based and comprehensive network of marine protected areas is a practical and durable solution.
Marine protected areas are super important for looking after the extraordinary diversity of life that swims, sways, and bubbles away underwater, and for conserving sacred cultural heritage sites. They provide the space and time for degraded reefs, seagrass meadows and mangrove forests to rest and regenerate, and are also essential for growing healthy fisheries. Fully protecting the right areas means thriving oceans, and a whole lot more fish.
Sadly, when it comes to Australia’s ocean, ‘protection’ doesn’t always mean what it says. There are wildly different levels of protection in Australia’s marine waters and they each allow different levels of activity within their boundaries. In ‘partially’ protected areas — so-called ‘paper parks’ — extractive activities like industrial fishing, fish farming and mining can occur. But in ‘fully’ or ‘highly’ protected areas like National Parks, no plants or animals can be removed or harmed, and extractive activities like drilling are out of the question.
Surprised? You’re not alone. This reality certainly doesn’t match up with the Australian community’s perception of what’s allowed to take place in a Marine Protected Area — the overwhelming majority of people surveyed (63 per cent) in a recent study believe that Australia's entire Marine Protected Area system prevents all extractive activities, including fishing.
This is not the case. Currently, 17 per cent of our Commonwealth waters have high levels of protection — i.e., they are fully protected ‘no-take’ sanctuary zones, while 28 per cent are only partially protected.
Some might say that partial protection is almost as good as none — a recent landmark Australian study showed that partially protected areas had no more fish, invertebrates, or algae than unprotected areas. Fully protected areas, by comparison, had 30 per cent more fish species and over twice the total weight of fish compared to unprotected areas.
Back in 2012, Australia created the world's largest marine reserve network, becoming a global champion of ocean conservation. Then-Labor Environment Minister Tony Burke announced a network of marine protected areas that covered over 3,000,000 square kilometres of ocean, right around the country. The plan was supported by 70 per cent of Australians, making it one of the most popular political decisions of our time.
But when the Coalition came to power in 2013, this global-leading network of marine reserves was suspended by then-Prime Minister, Tony Abbott. In 2018, despite widespread opposition from scientists and local communities — including a letter of concern signed by more than 1200 marine experts from 45 countries — then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull downgraded the protection of more than 1,000,000 square kilometres of Australia’s marine ecosystems, opening up huge stretches of ocean to offshore oil and gas and to destructive industrial trawling. This included an area in the Coral Sea three times the size of Victoria – the single greatest downgrade of a protected marine area anywhere in the world, in human history.
This is the critical decade. We have a remarkable opportunity to protect Australia’s ocean for good and create a lasting legacy as a global champion of ocean conservation.
For the first time in more than a decade, there appears to be a shift in the political waters. The Australian government has made ambitious formal commitments to ocean protection on a global and local level — signing up to protecting 30 per cent of Australia’s land and ocean by 2030, actively supporting the United Nations’ High Seas Treaty and announcing investment in First Nations ranger programs.
Just this week, Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek formally announced the Macquarie Island Marine Park is set to triple in size, with 93 per cent (or 385,000 square kilometres) of this globally significant marine park to be placed under full protection. This is a huge win for Australia’s unique sub-Antarctic oceanic ecosystems. Now what can we do for the oceans surrounding the Australian continent?
First Nations’ communities have been caring for their land and sea Countries for over 65,000 years. Stewardship of Country is a deep connection, passed down and developed through generations. It still runs strong, and it’s time to prioritise First Nations leadership and support First Nations’ advocacy and co-management of sea Country. This means making appropriate investments in First Nations’ led programs and sea ranger initiatives to tackle threats, conduct research and regenerate species and habitat.
It’s time to change course. We have a unique opportunity to protect Australia’s ocean for good. We’re rallying our salty community to call for full protection for 30 per cent of Australia’s ocean by 2030 and to support First Nations stewardship of Sea Country.