Melaleuca Media
Coloring in a Great Reef

Raw politics starts to give way to science as the Great Barrier Reef earns more protection. This feature, published in The Canberra Times and The Gold Coast Bulletin, earned the best backgrounder rating from the reef management authority and was published at a critical stage in the process.

By Phil Dickie and Susan Brown

It is to be hoped that young Virginia Chadwick was good with her crayons as a kid – because she has one hell of a coloring-in job to do now as chair of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority.

It is GBRMPA's biggest ever gig, by a long shot – rezoning the entire and newly extended marine park for its own protection, hopefully with the support or at least understanding of those who fish, farm, live in or visit the area.

You might think the reef colorful enough – it trades globally on a reputation of the biggest brightest fish gliding through what is by far the world's largest expanse of the brightest corals. But what few appreciate is that less than five percent is protected in the marine equivalent of national park zoning – only theoretically safe from scraping trawler nets, the commercial live fish trade and the recreational issue of too many tinnies taking too many fish in every area that too many tinnies can easily get to.

Scientists, conservationists and the tourism industry are also joining forces to seek a reef more able to cope with other threats – the sediment, nutrient, fertiliser and herbicide laden water coming off the Queensland coast, the crown of thorns plagues now thought to be linked to poor water quality and over-fishing and the potentially catastrophic coral bleaching associated with global warming.

Most of the existing green (no-take) and red (no go) areas in the reef are in the far north and more isolated areas of the reef. The heat in the current zoning review comes from the fact that the green crayon is poised over significant areas of coastal and inshore waters.

“While everyone knows that coral is beautiful and iconic and important, the reality is that we understand the importance of lots of other perhaps less visually attractive areas – all of which deserve and require a similar level of protection,” Chadwick said.

Even before the lines and colors are drafted into the large pile of maps in any serious way, there has been intense interest in the project. In a first round of consultation – designed to gather community input on what color crayons to use and where to use them – GBRMPA expected a respectable 2000 or so submissions.

They got 10,200, said to be a level of interest second only to the third runway of Sydney Airport for a Commonwealth authority.

Nor is the interest purely local. The Great Barrier Reef is by far the largest piece of world heritage seascape (or landscape) on the globe, which means close attention to the issue from international conservation groups and significant research institutes.

What GBRMPA is attempting is the world's largest ever exercise in carving out marine protected areas from highly valued and intensively used areas. International agencies dealing with their own collapsing fisheries and competing interests are watching closely with just two questions – can it be done and how will it work it it does.

Backed by international treaty obligations and a formula produced by a large panel of scientists, GBRMPA is now saying that the level of reef protection needs expanding by a factor of five or so.

It is not a popular message with the recreational fishing lobby, the commercial fishing interests, some coastal mayors or the cane farmers. “This is a large amount of a massive area that is going to be closed off mainly to recreational and commercial fishers,” said Sunfish North Queensland chairman Brian Pickup, one of the founders of the highly vocal group Recreational Enthusiasts Against Closures Totally (REACT).

“We don't believe recreational fishers impact to the degree that the scientists and the managers believe we are impacting out there.”

However, scientists and conservationists would generally like more use of the red (no go) and green (no take) zoning crayons – partly to give the reef a better chance of recovering from the bleaching events associated with global warming.

Indeed the scientific panel engaged by GBRMPA to establish rezoning guidelines said that full application of their “biophysical operational principles” (or protecting the myriad of organisms and their habitats) would see 25-30 percent of the reef protected, but this should be regarded as “minimum amounts of protection”.

“Ideal or desired amounts required for full protection are likely to be greater,” the report says, and Centre for Reef Biodiversity director Professor Terry Hughes puts the required level of protection in the 30-50 percent range.

Chadwick can dodge this on the basis that it came out after the rezoning guidelines had been established, but she has faced criticism elsewhere for setting her ambit claim at the level of the scientist's minimum requirements.

She doesn't see it this way and it sometimes seems as if she might have been reading different parts of a different report. “The application of those principles works out that it is about 20 per cent of each bioregion that needs to be protected,” she said.

According to an FOI application obtained by XXXX, Queensland Canegrowers has given GBRMPA maps with often almost continuous large bite size chunks marked “NO” running up to 18 kilometres out to sea down much of the Queensland coast. The industry, which has been maintaining there is no evidence it is having any effect on the reef, is adamantly opposed to any green zoned areas anywhere near any creek or rivers draining areas where cane is grown or where cane might be grown.

Canegrowers was asked to explain the contradiction, but didn't wish to elaborate beyond what was in the submission which says that “to confer an inappropriate conservation status” on areas in their “NO” zones would have “the potential to conflict with the ecologically sustainable development and continued operation of the sugar industry”.

The prospect of area closures coming on top of new and proposed catch limitations from the Queensland government has set the recreational and commercial fishers at odds. Queensland Seafood Industry Association CEO Duncan Souter said GBRMPA “didn't have a mandate for allocating fisheries resources and shouldn't get into it”.

This translates to Virginia, we accept there will be more green on the maps but put the yellow crayon back in the box. But some councils and some of the less strident recreational fishers would like more yellow zoning – you can fish from a tinny but not from a trawler – to be the pay off for accepting more green zones.

The commercial fishers are also looking to governments to buy out the fishing effort that is now to be restricted to smaller areas. REACT, which thinks the one line per angler rule in the likely yellow zones is putting the hated green in the rules rather than on the map, is predicting “ecological disaster” in the remaining blue general use zones.

“It is not a competition between the scientists and the fishers,” said Professor Hughes. “All you have to do is compare the numbers of fish and their sizes in green zones today and you will see there are not enough green zones”.

Indeed, REACT's Brian Pickup might have undermined his own case recently, advising members to race out to the re-opening of some experimentally closed reefs “to take advantage of the increased size and number of fish”.

World Wide Fund for Nature reef campaign co-ordinator Imogen Zethoven said it was “ironic” that all the fishers ”are very wary or even hostile to the program when they stand to be major beneficiaries. Scientific evidence from around the world shows that when 30-50% of reefs are closed to fishing, fish stocks increase in abundance and then spill over into adjacent areas open to fishing.”

For the tourism industry, it is about protecting “a key asset”. Queensland Tourism Industry Corporation chief executive Daniel Gschwind predicts more green on the map will ultimately be “win-win for all” - but he also quoted a recent Productivity Commission report noting that reef associated tourism “had 47,660 employees, and commercial fishing 641 in the same area”.

Outspoken National Party federal member for Dawson Dee-Anne Kelly is reserving judgement for “when GBRMPA releases the maps and people find out where the lines are”.

“If people believe they have been listened too, if it is fair and there is a balanced outcome it will probably work out,” she said. “If it appears there is no logic to the lines, if it stops commercial and recreational fishers going over green zones to get to fishing areas so they have to go round and use more fuel and if the locals haven't been largely listened too then we will have a fight and I will be taking it to my ministers in cabinet.”

Federal Environment Minister David Kemp is already being scrutinized for advance indications of whether he will – in modern political parlance - have the ticker for it.

“He was the one who asked GBRMPA to do this to ensure the Great Barrier Reef is put on a sustainable basis for the long term, and he is insistent that it is carried out on the basis of sound science and extremely wide public consultation,” said a spokesperson for Dr Kemp.

Nevertheless, you should watch with interest when Virginia Chadwick hands in her assignment to Dr Kemp and in all probability to Federal Cabinet. Zones on the reef are one thing, a string of marginal seats on the coast quite another. Sound science and wide consultation could be marked down as the threats to color in the electoral maps a bit differently start flying about.