On a warm Thursday evening in early September, a community meeting about the New South Wales Government’s proposal to establish a new, long-awaited marine park in and around Sydney was held at Fishing Station in Mona Vale on the city’s northern beaches. Around three hundred local fishers crowded in to voice their anger, bodies spilling out of the tackle shop’s doorway and into the carpark. To them, the marine park was a ‘lockout’, an infringement on their liberties. They were adamant it had nothing to do with science or with protecting the environment, and everything to do with an extremist ‘greenie’ ideology. And they weren’t just worried about how it would affect them and their ability to fish wherever they wished: as one attendee said, gesturing to his young son seated beside him, ‘We’ve got to think about what all of this will mean for future generations.’
The meeting was just one manifestation of the fierce campaign waged against the proposal since it was announced in mid-August this year. All those involved – fishers, radio shock jocks, tabloid newspapers, and the Shooters and Fishers Party – had already vowed to make the marine park a key issue in the upcoming 2019 state election.
One of the speakers at the meeting was Al McGlashan, a self-described ‘mad keen fisherman’ and fishing presenter. ‘We’re the conservationists,’ he told the gathered crowd. ‘We’re not the problem; we’re the solution.’ He was excited by the huge turnout. ‘This is the first time we’ve really all got motivated to kick some greenie ass.’
After the meeting, McGlashan told me he had met with Niall Blair, the NSW Minister for Primary Industries, a few days earlier to discuss the marine park. The government, he said, was ‘very nervous’ about the anti-marine park campaign. He believed the minister and many of his colleagues were allied with fishers and was ‘positive’ the proposal would soon be scrapped.
McGlashan was right. Eleven days after the meeting, and ten days before the conclusion of the public consultation period about the proposal, Niall Blair revealed on 2GB radio to Ray Hadley – one of the most outspoken opponents of the marine park – that ‘lockouts are off the table.’
‘I want to put the industry’s mind at ease that there’ll be no loss of fishing rights or access with the final decision made by the government,’ Blair said.
‘Okay, so – congratulations,’ Hadley replied. ‘That’s a decision based on common sense.’ Which makes you wonder what common sense is, in Hadley’s opinion. Something very different, I suspect, to what most others think, given what the marine park would have actually looked like, and the many good reasons there are for establishing one.
As part of the government’s broader Marine Estate Management Strategy 2018–2028, the proposed marine park would not be a continuous conservation zone, but a network of twenty-five distinct and individually managed sites scattered throughout the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion. Stretching over 1500 kilometres from Newcastle to Wollongong, and including Sydney Harbour, this bioregion contains an extraordinary collection of marine life. In Sydney Harbour alone, there are nearly 600 fish species – more than double the number found in all the waters around the United Kingdom. Equally extraordinary, a recent paper in Coral Reefs journal reported the presence of tropical corals and tropical fish, like the two-striped damselfish and the blackbar devil fish, just off the coastline of Australia’s largest city. It’s the furthest south these species have been found, and in future years the amount and variety of tropical coral and tropical fish around Sydney is expected to increase.
Yet despite having such rich and unique biodiversity, the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion is the only marine bioregion in New South Wales without a dedicated marine park of any sort. Only one percent of it is currently a no-take sanctuary zone where fishing – which an August 2017, a government-commissioned report identified as one of a number of primary threats to marine life – is completely banned. The proposal, if implemented, would have increased this figure to 2.4 per cent. Or, put another way, over 97 per cent of the bioregion would have remained open to fishers.
Compared to other marine parks, this level of full protection was pathetically low. For example, no-take sanctuary zones account for a quarter of the Cape Byron Marine Park on the state’s north coast, and around a fifth of the Jervis Bay Marine Park and the Batemans Marine Park on the state’s south coast. Nevertheless, the proposal was still a very rare victory – albeit a very small one – for the environment in New South Wales. And despite the opposition from the very vocal fishing lobby and its supporters, it was widely welcomed by the general public. Polling done for the Nature Conservation Council showed that in some coastal electorates of Sydney, support for the marine park was as high as 89 per cent. Even more significantly, a majority of those polled wanted at least 10 per cent of the bioregion’s waters designated as no-take sanctuary zones.
While measures like bag limits and possession limits for fishers do help in protecting marine life, there is a wealth of scientific evidence showing that no-take sanctuary zones are necessary to stop the eventual collapse of the ocean’s ecosystems. A five-year study of the Batemans Marine Park published in PLOS ONE found there were, on average, 38 per cent more fish in no-take sanctuary zones than in fished areas. Another study published in Frontiers of Marine Science found there was a three-fold increase in the number of snapper within sections of the Port Stephens-Great Lakes marine park after it was established. The study also indicated that snapper in no-take areas were ‘significantly larger’ than those in partially protected areas.
‘In order to maintain some naturally functioning food webs supported by large predators and associated ecosystem services in this era of changing climate, a greatly expanded network of effective, fully protected marine areas is needed that encompasses global marine biodiversity,’ another study published in Aquatic Conservation in 2017 concluded. ‘The present globally unbalanced situation, with >98% of seas open to some form of fishing, deserves immediate multinational attention.’
That’s a very incomplete list of available evidence. There are many, many more studies that could be cited.
Understandably so, then, David Booth, Professor of Marine Ecology at the University of Technology, was livid when I spoke with him moments after Niall Blair’s appearance on Ray Hadley’s radio show. A world-leading expert on marine ecology, he advised the government extensively when it was preparing the proposal. Although he supported it, he thought it was a case of the government ‘doing the absolute least it needed to,’ and wanted to see 20 per cent of the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion granted full protection. He described the scrapping of the proposal’s tiny amount of no-take sanctuary zones as ‘fucking disgusting’ and a ‘gutless backflip, just like the greyhounds,’ in reference to the reversal of the greyhound racing ban in 2016 following howls of protest from conservative media outlets and the greyhound racing community.
‘Even before the consultation period had ended, the government said, “Well, the fishers have spoken.” But if you were talking about better techniques for heart surgery, would you listen to what people with bad hearts were saying over what doctors were saying? Of course not – that would be ridiculous. And yet, that’s exactly what the government did with this marine park.’
The real reason why the government scrapped the sanctuary zones was politics, plain and simple. As Professor Booth says: ‘It’s got nothing to do with doing the right thing for the environment or the people. It’s about getting re-elected. Which is what governments do – I’m not stupid. But that’s really sad.’ Just as sad is that there’s little hope that a change of government at next year’s election would see Sydney’s waters granted the full protection they deserve. While Labor has promised to establish a single, continuous marine park if elected, this park would be ‘multi-use’ and cater for a range of activities, including fishing.
Emboldened by their victory, those involved with the recent anti-marine park campaign are already pressuring the government to wind back the amount of existing no-take sanctuary zones elsewhere in the state. Given the government caved so quickly to their earlier demands, as well as its atrocious record on other environmental matters (the legal protection granted to wild horses in Kosciuszko National Park earlier this year, for example, or the winding back of the state’s land clearing regulations in 2017), there’s good reason to believe this will happen. In fact, speaking on ABC Radio a few days after announcing the government would not introduce any restriction on fishing in Sydney, Niall Blair admitted that existing marine parks around the state ‘are up for review.’
The father at the community meeting in Mona Vale was right. We do need to think about what all of this will mean for future generations.