Lessons on marine parks from the Great Barrier Reef

In 2004, the Australian and Queensland governments increased protection of the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) closing 117,000 km2 of the reef to commercial fishing inside the Great Barrier Reef marine park.

A report by four fisheries scientists explains that the Australian and Queensland governments supported the creation of the parks in the belief that the additional closures would generate minimal initial reductions of about 10% in both catch and landed value with recovery of catches after three years. To test these predictions the researchers used commercial fisheries data from the GBR and from two non-GBR areas of Queensland. They compared these areas for the periods immediately prior to, and after the closures were implemented.

They found that the total annual catch and value within the GBR declined from pre-closure by 35% and 36% respectively. Catch decreased by 4,500 tonnes; around a third of the production from the South East Trawl Fishery. The researchers found no evidence of recovery in total catch levels or any comparative improvement in catch-rates within the GBR nine years after implementation.

They concluded that these results are not consistent with the original advice to governments that the closures would have minimal initial impacts and rapidly generate benefits to fisheries in the GBR through increased juvenile recruitment and adult spillovers.

The researchers added that the absence of evidence of recovery in catches or catch-rates to date actually supports an alternative hypothesis. This is that where there is already effective fisheries management, the closing of areas to all fishing will generate reductions in overall catches similar to the percentage of the fished area that is closed.

The Association welcomes the finding that in this case marine parks had no fishery spillover benefit because the GBR fishery was already well managed.

However, the Association believes that in the case of the GBR there is growing evidence that dredging, agricultural runoff, climate change and its extreme weather events are causing the GBR to deteriorate. Since 1985, the GBR has lost more than half of its corals with two-thirds of the loss occurring from 1998 due to these threats. UNESCO recognised the GBR as a world heritage site in 1981 and has now deferred a decision to list the GBR as “in danger” to later this year.

Tax payers must ask whether the $213m they spent buying out commercial fishermen on the GBR was money well spent given it continues to cost the Australian economy $58m each year and has not addressed the threats to the reef?

Marine parks in the south-east are more than three times the size of the GBR’s parks at 388,000km. ¬†All marine parks in the south-east are closed to trawling.

This report is timely given the Australian community is being asked to join the conversation about the way that Commonwealth marine parks should be managed.