A big opportunity to conserve Australia’s marine natural heritage

By Jennifer McGowan and Hugh Possingham

Australia has some of the world’s most amazing marine wonders, and while many of these are to be found on the Great Barrier Reef, most of these wonders are actually in other places in the seas and oceans surrounding our country. Unfortunately, almost all of the attention on our marine natural heritage goes to the Great Barrier Reef. Yes, it’s important, but let’s not forget about protecting the rest of our marine estate. As it happens, Australia’s network of marine protected areas is currently under review so the time is right to make a stand.

Photo of cuttlefish. Photo credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

But before we talk about all of Australia, let’s talk about the Great Barrier Reef. Everyone knows about the Great Barrier Reef; indeed UNESCO has it on its list of World Heritage Areas. And everyone wants the Great Barrier Reef to be around for future generations to see. But the Reef is under pressure and showing signs of decline. UNESCO is discussing listing the Great Barrier Reef as “in danger” and Australian Governments are spending significant money to sustain its natural values.

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Photo of Great Barrier Reef. Photo credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

The Great Barrier Reef is also important to our discussion here because Australia’s rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef back in 2004 is considered the best example of a systematically planned network of marine protected areas in the world. It delivered positive outcomes for fisheries and biodiversity demonstrating that when it comes to conservation you don’t have to sacrifice the economy to protect natural values.

So the Great Barrier Reef is a good news story but Australia’s marine natural heritage is so much more including, for example, the world’s largest Mediterranean reef system, the Great Southern Reef, and the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The number of species endemic to regions like the Great Southern Reef far exceed that of the Great Barrier Reef with 30-80% of the all seaweeds, sponges, crustaceans, chordates, bryozoans, echinoderms and molluscs found nowhere else in the world.

Weedy Seadragon in Sydney Harbour Photo-credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey.

The spotlight on Australia’s management of the Great Barrier Reef has drawn attention away from a much bigger issue about the rezoning of Australia’s entire Exclusive Economic Zone.

In 2012, the Australian Federal Government proposed the boundaries of a network of marine protected areas around Australia. This proposal sought to meet the Aichi target of putting 10% of coastal and marine areas in “effective and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems” of protected areas by 2020. Since then, the management plans for these proposed areas have not been established, so these protected areas are little more than ‘paper parks’.

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We did an analysis of the current proposals and found that they fail to meet the fundamental principle of ‘representation’  in all five planning regions.  Coastal areas are massively underrepresented in the strictest marine protected area classes (dark blue) while abyssal plains, which experience limited threats, are well represented in the proposed system (orange). This repeats the mistakes we have made in building terrestrial protected area systems in which the parts of the landscape we use for farming, mining and living in, are under represented whereas the parts we don’t use, like steep slopes and mountain tops, are very well protected. This is especially ironic since the 2004 Great Barrier Reef rezoning set the global standard for representative, systematically designed marine-protected-area networks.

The current review of the Commonwealth plan presents a partial opportunity to redress the shortcomings of the original, unrepresentative proposal. As the first large country in the world to propose a national marine reserve system, the global marine conservation community should be concerned that Australia has not set a higher bar.

Within the existing outer boundaries, we can designate a number of small and medium size no-take zones in coastal areas. Not only would this do a better job of meeting the principle of representation, it will enable us to learn about the effectiveness of marine protected areas in the Australian context. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to both achieve a good conservation outcome and advance our knowledge on how to better design marine protected area networks.



Jennifer McGowan is a PhD candidate in the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at The University of Queensland. Follow her on Twitter @j_a_mcgowan

Hugh Possingham is Director of the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science and the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at The University of Queensland.  Follow him on Twitter @hugepossum



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The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) is an international professional organization dedicated to promoting the scientific study of the phenomena that affect the maintenance, loss, and restoration of biological diversity. The Society's membership comprises a wide range of people interested in the conservation and study of biological diversity: resource managers, educators, government and private conservation workers, and students make up the more than 4,000 members world-wide. The Society was founded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on May 8, 1985. Find out more about the inspiring history of the Society for Conservation Biology.