What has happened to the planned Sydney Marine Park?

Photo Mike Scotland

Some insights and history from a marine activist and a marine scientist

Gary Schoer, Secretary, Southern Sydney Branch NPA

Dr Ross Jeffree, National and International Project Officer, Southern Sydney Branch NPA

Sharnie O’Connell, Marine Campaigner, NPA

Southern Sydney Branch first became aware of the possible threats to Sydney’s underwater marine ecosystems when plans were announced for sand mining offshore from Royal National Park in 1990. Faced with looming shortages of building sand from the Kurnell sandhills, Boral proposed that available technology would allow these largely sandy habitats to be exploited, thus filling potential gaps in supply.

The first Marine Parks in NSW

Before the Marine Parks Act 1997 was gazetted (to be replaced later by the Marine Estate Management Act 2014) the Southern Sydney Branch of NPA commissioned a study, by Dr Ted Bryant of Wollongong University1, which recommended a Marine extension to Royal National Park along its coastline; effectively a Sanctuary of a Category II reserve under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s criteria for conservation reserves. This would effectively be equivalent in conservation controls to the adjoining National Park but with the added protection of no fishing or mining extraction.  Consultation with the general community, and divers, NSW Fisheries officers and many others led to our own branded proposal, “Towards a Healthy Ocean…Curracurrong Marine and Estuarine Protected Area”2 which gained a degree of state and local government political support and promises, ultimately unfulfilled, by both Liberal and Labor governments over two decades. 

On the positive side, the introduction of the Marine Parks Act in 1997 led to a community consultation process which eventually led to the declaration of the six existing NSW marine parks all of which occurred under a Labor Government. These new marine parks (Jervis Bay, Solitary Islands, Lord Howe Island, Cape Byron, Port Stephens Great Lakes, and Batemans) were declared in all coastal marine bioregions with two notable exceptions; the Hawkesbury Shelf (covering greater Sydney’s marine waters from the Central Coast to Shellharbour) and the Twofold Shelf Marine Bioregion (straddling the far South Coast of NSW and parts of Victoria).

Figure 1 Marine Parks in NSW (Source: NSW Department of Primary Industries)

The processes and draft proposals were strongly argued by different sectors of the community and were marked by a large degree of adversarial commentary, despite some generally thwarted attempts to find common ground. No user sector was completely satisfied with the final outcomes in each of the reserve-represented bioregions. However, at least 6.7% of the state’s oceanic and estuarine waters were conserved as ‘Sanctuary Zones’ under the Marine Parks Act 1997. This outcome afforded the greatest opportunity for biodiversity improvements in the better-designed and managed components of the marine reserve network. When there was hope that a process leading to a Sydney Marine Park was imminent, the then NSW Labor Government withdrew its plans prior to an election. This withdrawal created the situation for protracted efforts by NGOs, especially NPA and the Nature Conservation Council, to get the Sydney Marine Park back on the state government’s radar.

Pressure from Recreational Fishing groups

Under pressure from recreational fishing lobby groups in 2012, the incoming Coalition Government conducted an Independent Audit into Marine Parks in NSW to see if they were performing well. The Audit concluded that the existing marine parks were effective in conserving biodiversity. However, there were two gaps in the existing marine park network; specifically, being in the Hawkesbury Shelf and Twofold Shelf marine bioregions.  Rather than continue along the path of declaring and managing marine parks in NSW, the Coalition Government decided they could do a better job than the previous Government and proposed a “new way to manage the NSW marine estate”.

A part of the new marine estate reforms the current NSW Government has rejected the internationally and nationally supported CAR process (Comprehensive, Adequate and Representative) which would close the gap in an incomplete network of marine reserves along the NSW coast. This ‘new’ approach identified stakeholders’ perceptions of the major threats and risks to the marine ecosystem rather than identifying and prioritising the actual risks to the marine environment. This has resulted in water quality ranking number one in the list of threats rather than fishing, which was broken down into eight separate categories, thus hiding the cumulative impact of directly removing fish from the ecosystem.

This governance paradigm effectively marginalised the extensively documented evidence that sanctuaries produced dramatic improvements in biodiversity when they were well designed, no take, large, old and well managed3. A well organised recreational fishing lobby was also successful in rolling back the sanctuary status of thirty marine areas off beaches and headlands within a number of marine parks. Efforts to address this short-sighted government decision consumed the marine arms of NPA and other NGOs, for over two years. These efforts gained some retractions so that ultimately ten rollbacks of sanctuary status remain. 

Subsequently a community consultative process by the NSW Liberal/National Government was undertaken over six years. This process included a statewide “Marine Audit” and an attempt to identify a range of marine habitats that warranted better protections.

When is a protected area not a protected area?

After decades of lobbying, the Coalition Government, in 2018, finally announced a proposal for a Sydney Marine Park. Unfortunately, the park was woefully inadequate with only 2.4% of coastal waters proposed to be sanctuary zone. Further objections to even these small sanctuary zones eventually resulted in the proposal coming to nought.

The United Nations developed the Convention on Biological Diversity, which came into effect in 1993. Target 11 of the Aichi Convention (2010) calls for countries to protect 10% of their marine waters in Marine Protected Areas (MPAs)4. Australia is a signatory to this convention and is required to fulfil the requirements. Unfortunately, the definition of MPA also includes partially protected waters which correspond to IUCN protected area categories IV-VI, these partially protected areas have been shown to be virtually ineffective for conservation purposes. A better goal would be that 10% of coastal waters be fully protected sanctuary zones. Further to this the Australian Marine Sciences Association recommends that we protect at least 30% of our coastal waters to protect ecosystems from collapse and ensure we have fish for the future5.

NPA NSW would like to see a significant increase from the current levels of marine protection for the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion up from less than 1% currently to at least 30% as recommended by the science.

A tokenistic range of sanctuaries proposed by Government that triggered very insistent lobbying by outliers of the recreational fishing community and, allegedly, the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party, has resulted in an extraordinary government decision largely pushed by the then Minister for Fisheries, Niall Blair. “No decision on the future of Sydney’s marine waters would deny fishers any further access”, the Minister wrote to the Recreational Fishing Alliance of NSW.  The fishers, generally, were lauded by the then Minister as the group that knows best how to manage the fish they seek to catch. The Government, in so acquiescing to this ‘right to fish’ demand, which has also encouraged a possible Bill with that name, has made three fundamental errors.

  1. It wrongly assumed that the application of the Marine Estate Management Act was largely about fishing. It is not. It is and should be an Act that works to address overall biodiversity improvements. Sanctuaries, supported by addressing other key threats, needed to be seen as a proven way to improve biodiversity overall.
  2. Sanctuaries are known to produce more and bigger fish PLUS increased overall biodiversity that will (incidentally) provide more and bigger fish for all for the future. ‘Fish for all’ is a social value which has been overlooked by this government. It is a statement that points to the shared values of ALL user groups. The Government has chosen to listen only to the strident calls from a marginal lobby group and not the more valid expressions of conservation support from the wider community; and this includes fishers whom notably are one of the community’s strongest support base 6, 7,8 for marine sanctuary establishment.
  3. Through concentrating solely on fishers (so called) rights, many other user groups who stand to benefit from improved biodiversity outcomes have been marginalised. Amongst such groups are scuba divers, snorkelers, surfers, ocean swimmers, water adventure activities (eg. sea kayaking/windsurfing).

Changing Hearts and Minds

However, no matter the scientific logic of the conservation argument, some limited sectors of the recreational fishers lobby have the ear of this current state government, and we need to better understand what drives that minority of fishers who are not positive about what sanctuaries can do for their chosen recreation. Behavioural psychology may help in this domain. It suggests that, to a fisher, a fish caught today is more valued than a bigger fish or more fish caught several years down the track-when sanctuaries within multiple use marine parks deliver on a longer-term investment which only requires some restraint by fishers over limited areas of our ocean and estuaries. A study out of Princeton University in 2004 suggests that shorter term emotional responses sometimes win over longer term, more abstract goals9. The different responses come from different parts of the brain… understanding why some people find it hard to tap into the more abstract parts of their decision making process may help convince the smaller percentage of marine park antagonists to figure out what is really in the long term interest of sustainable, healthy, ocean biodiversity.

Much of some fishers’ rhetoric is also about retaining their ‘freedom’ to fish unrestrained. Bumper stickers extol fishing as escape from the constraints of everyday working lives! In their view conservationists are restricting their freedom to operate as weekend hunter-gatherers, although we are in fact living in the Anthropocene where there are so many of us that every individual action we take has some incremental environmental consequence.

There can be no doubt that understanding the diversity of fishers’ motivations might help us all find common ground. But our Great Southern Reef is also suffering from widespread urchin barrens. Salt marshes and shellfish reefs are critically threatened, whilst large groups of marine organisms are threatened by warming seas. Is it too much to ask that our State Government uses the many talented scientists within its ranks to respond positively to the shared community goals of ensuring that our local marine waters are not just healthy but bountiful in the longer term?

It’s time to reinstate a stronger marine governance that more validly acknowledges the evidence. A well-planned and managed network of sanctuaries is required to close the gap in the conservation of NSW marine waters, especially around Sydney and the far south coast, if these waters are not to become even more threatened by political neglect.


  1. Bryant, E. (1990) Marine Extension of the Royal National Park. Unpublished Consultancy Report for the National Parks Association of NSW Inc. Southern Sydney Branch.
  2. Schoer, G. (Project Officer NPA Southern Sydney Branch of NPA), (1992) Towards a Healthy Ocean…Curracurrong Marine and Estuarine Protected Area.
  3. Graham Edgar, Rick Stuart-Smith et al (2014), Global Conservation Outcomes depend on Marine Protected Areas with five key features. Nature 506, 216-220.
  4. Convention on Biological Diversity (2010), Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, Including Aichi Biodiversity Targets, Aichi Prefecture, Japan.
  5. Australian Marine Sciences Association (2019), Position Statement on Marine Protected Areas. https://www.amsa.asn.au/amsa-position-statement-marine-protected-areas.
  6. NSW and the Dept of Environment, Climate Change and Water NSW (2010), Who cares about the environment in 2009.
  7. Navarro, M, M.E. Kragt, A. Hailu, T.J. Langlois (2018), Recreational fishers’ support for no-take marine reserves is high and increases with reserve age. Marine Policy Volume 96, October 2018, Pages 44-52.
  8. NSW Marine Parks Authority (2009), Solitary Islands Marine Park: zoning plan review report.
  9. Princeton University (2004), Study: Brain battles itself over short-term rewards, long-term goals https://pr.princeton.edu/news/04/q4/1014-brain.htm.

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