The Politics of Large Marine Protected Areas in Australia

Visiting Research Affiliate Justin Alger describes the political complexities of Marine Protected Areas

Until 2006, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park (GBRMP) was the largest marine protected area on the planet. It had held this title since the Australian government created the park in 1975. Since 2006, governments around the world have created 13 new MPAs that exceed it in size, including the Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve (CMR) in Australia. With these large MPAs, governments are protecting ocean space at an unprecedented rate. Announcements of these MPAs often make grand claims about being the biggest and best of its kind: the world’s largest, the world’s largest contiguous, the largest no-take MPA, and so on. These announcements make international headlines, raising awareness about ocean decline and leading to a swell in support for ocean conservation initiatives.

What gets lost in these announcements are the often years of political lobbying and bargaining that must happen before a government can create and implement a new large MPA. This is no more evident than in Australia’s Coral Sea. The Gillard government proclaimed the Coral Sea CMR in 2012, and was days away from enacting a management plan that would see regulations in effect on the water. The Abbott government—unhappy with the proposed management plan—slyly re-proclaimed the reserve when it took power, which reset the clock on enacting a management plan so it could carry out its own review. That review is now complete, with the outcome pending the results of the July 2016 federal election. Regardless of who wins that election, the Coral Sea will be a mixed-use MPA, with zones designated for various conservation and commercial activities. This plan is the result of a monumental effort by stakeholder groups over many years to protect their interests. Of the large MPAs created since 2006, none have been as extensively deliberated or seen as extensive consultations as the Coral Sea CMR.

The Coral Sea CMR process has been underway for nearly a decade, and to this day remains a contentious one. Recreational fishing lobby groups in Australia have a steadfast opposition to closures, what they refer to as “lock-outs.” That opposition is often so adamant that they oppose closures even in areas that recreational fishers do not historically fish, including the majority of the Coral Sea, fearing the precedent that these closures set. This is in many ways a uniquely Australian dynamic. In other countries recreational fishing groups are often supportive of large closures because they reduce competition from commercial fleets, allowing them to catch bigger and more fish in the areas that they frequent. The Coral Sea CMR will also have a significant impact on a handful of commercial fishing businesses. These businesses face an uncertain future, unsure if the zoning of the Coral Sea will allow them to continue their operations, or if they will be bought out. Dive operators have similarly been working to ensure that the reefs that they rely on remain closed to all types of fishing. Protecting these reefs is paramount to them, particularly given the severe threat they face from climate change; a threat that manifested itself in the worst coral bleaching event in the history of the Great Barrier Reef in 2016.

Driving the campaign to protect the Coral Sea are a combination of transnational and local environmental groups, most prominent of which have been the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Australian Marine Conservation Society (AMCS) respectively. Their calls for better protections for the Coral Sea are often maligned by industry groups that claim the Coral Sea’s resources are already sustainably managed. There is, however, a distinction between conservation goals and sustainable resource management goals. Conservation initiatives are intended to allow ecosystems the ability to thrive without any human intervention – an objective that is at odds with extractive activities, even if sustainable. There is no dispute about the effectiveness of well managed MPAs for conservation: the science clearly shows that they lead to healthier, more resilient marine ecosystems.

The question of whether a marine area should be set aside for conservation or for sustainable resource use is therefore a political one. The answer depends on the people and industries that rely on marine resources in that area for their livelihoods. It equally depends on the fact that the ocean is in rapid decline worldwide, and ambitious conservation initiatives are necessarily if we are to slow this descent. This tension between sustainable resource use and conservation is at the heart of the lobbying and bargaining that occurs around new large MPAs. It is not always clear which approach is the best one for a given area. The ongoing Coral Sea CMR process exhibits this tension more clearly than other large MPAs, but every new large MPA has its own political story. Understanding the politics of these large MPAs is essential to ensuring that they remain a politically viable and effective conservation tool for years to come.

Justin Alger is a doctoral candidate in the Political Science department at The University of British Columbia majoring in international relations, with a focus on global environmental politics. He holds an MA in International Affairs from Carleton University’s Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, as well as a BA (Honours) from McMaster University in History, with a minor in Business. Prior to beginning his doctoral work at UBC, Justin was a researcher at the Canadian Centre for Treaty Compliance (CCTC), working on various projects funded by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and the Canadian government. He was one of the primary researchers on the Nuclear Energy Futures Project, which examined the future prospects of and global governance implications for nuclear energy.

Image: Arturo Pardavila III ‘Tourist boats in the Coral Sea in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park World Heritage Area’ via Flickr Commons