NSW Marine Protected Areas: Our Underwater National Parks

Sharnie Connell, Senior Campaigns Officer, National Parks Association of NSW

Many people are unaware that marine protected areas exist, or how they work. As the saying goes out of sight, out of mind. The value of national parks on land seems obvious, we currently have around 9% conservation area in terrestrial NSW but only 6% sanctuary in our NSW state waters.

Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs, is the umbrella term for spatial zones that are managed for conservation purposes and have been set up to protect biodiversity, along with scientific and recreational values. The MPA with the highest level of protection is a sanctuary zone, otherwise known as ‘no-take’ zone, that is free from extractive activities including mining, fishing and collecting. In NSW sanctuary zones form part of the marine park and there are other zones including the habitat protection zone where trawling and longlining is prohibited but recreational fishing can occur. The general use zones allow for some commercial fishing activities, such as oyster farming and fish farming.

As far as they go, our underwater National Parks are excellent, and protect some unique marine communities and amazing dive sites. State waters stretch from the coastline (incorporating lagoons, salt water lakes, rivers up to the influence of the high tide) out to three nautical miles offshore (approx 5km). In our NSW state waters we currently have six established marine parks: Cape Byron Marine Park, Solitary Islands Marine Park (Coffs Harbour), Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park, Jervis Bay Marine Park, Batemans Marine Park and Lord Howe Marine Park. In the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion, between Wollongong and Newcastle, there are ten much smaller aquatic reserves, three of which have full sanctuary protection but most of which are partial protection only, so some forms of fishing or collecting are allowed. There is one large sanctuary zone on the central coast of NSW in the Bouddi National Park Marine Extension. This linking of terrestrial conservation with marine conservation makes holistic sense.

Cabbage Tree Bay in Manly is a good example of a tiny 20 ha of sanctuary zone that is working really well. After 15 years of being established, the aquatic vegetation has returned and the bay is literally teeming with marine life. With the proximity of the park so close to the Sydney CBD, it attracts thousands of people every day enjoying the abundant marine life whilst swimming, snorkelling or scuba diving.

Sanctuary zones work by allowing the flora and fauna to completely recover, breed, and eventually completely repopulate an area. Sanctuary zones that have been established for 15 or more years, are large, and well enforced really start to show amazing results, with the fish breeding in the sanctuary repopulating the surrounding fishing areas. The IUCN and the Australian Marine Sciences Association recommend 30% of our marine waters should be given full sanctuary protection to attempt to stem the loss of marine life from our coastal waters. If reserves are to be truly effective, they need to be no-take marine reserves and protect marine life from the effects of fishing. The only comparable part of a marine park to terrestrial conservation is the no-take sanctuary zone.

A widely accepted guiding principle for creating MPAs is the CAR principle. CAR is an acronym for Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative. MPAs need to be comprehensive, adequate and representative to properly protect biodiversity, scientific, recreational and environmental values in the marine environment.

  • Comprehensiveness: MPAs should include the full range of ecosystems recognised at an appropriate scale within and across each bioregion.
  • Adequacy: There should be a level of reservation to ensure the ecological viability and integrity of populations, species and communities.
  • Representativeness: areas selected for inclusion in MPAs should reasonably reflect the biotic diversity of the marine ecosystems from which they derive.

Unfortunately, NSW’s system of MPAs generally fails to follow the CAR principles. Whole bioregions are not represented in no-take MPAs. Where bioregions are represented, the MPAs are too small and/or inadequately protected from fishing. Small aquatic reserves that are completely no-take are valuable as recreational areas, but are not really adequate for the protection of biodiversity, fisheries management, or scientific research.

Climate change and a rapidly warming marine environment increasingly threaten NSW’s marine communities. The east coast of Australia’s marine environment is one of the fastest warming marine areas on the planet. This poses a direct threat to marine life that has evolved to live in cooler waters. A no-take, CAR system of MPAs could help mitigate some of the impacts of climate change by eliminating the additional pressure of fishing. Sanctuary zones are good for studying the effects of fishing and other human activities to the marine ecosystem. Marine ecosystems that are allowed to recover in sanctuary zones can be useful baseline, or control, sites to help assess the impacts of fishing and other human activities. They can also help distinguish between fishing impacts, and changes due to warming waters, which can allow better management of our marine environment.

Our six well established marine parks in NSW are under threat. The NSW government has already started the process of dismantling marine sanctuary protection in the Batemans Marine Park and has indicated more sanctuaries are to be removed from the Port Stephens Great Lakes Marine Park in the near future. The Government is initiating reviews and a public consultation around zoning in these parks, with the intention of reducing the sanctuary protection significantly throughout our entire marine park network. We cannot let this happen.

This is a critical time in the campaign. The NSW Government has been undermining the process for managing our marine environment for some years now and the process has become completely derailed. This is the time for us to stand up and demand our sanctuaries be restored. Our iconic blue backyard deserves the gold standard of protection.
To get involved in the campaign or find out more contact Sharnie

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