The Australian Marine Conservation Society has uncovered alarming threatened species bycatch in areas that would have been protected if not for the Coalition Government’s suspension and weakening of our Commonwealth marine park plans. The plans are due to be voted on in Parliament this week.
Australian Fisheries Management Authority reports¹ reveal that longline tuna fisheries off the east coast of Australia are killing sea turtles in a turtle bycatch ‘hotspot’ in the Coral Sea which would have been protected from fishing in Australia’s original network of marine parks proclaimed by the Gillard Government in 2012.
The Abbott Government suspended the marine parks network in 2013, and the Turnbull Government has now introduced new plans that remove a protected area almost twice the size of Victoria compared with the Gillard government’s plans. This is the biggest removal of protection for Australian wildlife in history – equivalent to removing almost every second national park on land.
“The Turnbull Government’s decision to cut back marine protection has a shocking hidden catch – our threatened marine species are being killed in areas that would otherwise have been protected in marine parks,” said Adrian Meder, from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.
“Areas that would have been protected from fishing for years now if the Coalition government had not suspended our marine parks in 2013 are now becoming bycatch hotspots.
“We’re concerned that other marine biodiversity hotspots right around Australia will also be damaged by fishing bycatch in the Coalition’s new, inadequate marine parks plans.
“The new plans, that are still before parliament, remove significant protection around biodiversity hotspots like Lihou Reef and the wider Coral Sea, Lord Howe island, the Kimberley, and the waters off Ningaloo Reef, compared to the 2012 plans suspended by the Coalition,” said Meder.
Australia’s offshore marine parks were suspended in 2013. Since then, reports show an alarming skyrocketing in tuna longline fishery bycatch of threatened species such as turtles, seabirds and whales.
Fisheries reporting² shows that in 2013, 16 turtles, one whale and no seabirds were reported in compulsory fisher logbook reports in the Eastern Tuna & Billfish Fishery. This contrasts dramatically with reporting for 2017, where 194 turtles, 29 cetaceans and 49 seabirds were reported caught, despite a comparable level of fishing activity between the years. It is only new catch monitoring and reporting requirements that are shining a light on the Eastern Tuna & Billfish Fishery’s real impacts on threatened species.
“The Turnbull Government has been investigating these alarming increases in protected species deaths at the same time as opening these areas to the fisheries where the marine life mortality is happening.
“This is more evidence that environmental management through fisheries alone is not enough to protect our vulnerable and endangered species, and that Australia’s oceans need marine parks that offer real protection for our Commonwealth waters. It is clear that the Coalition government’s plans fail to do so,” said Meder.
“This evidence makes it clear that we should be improving our marine parks, not slashing them, particularly when our oceans are under so much pressure already.
“This is weakening Australia’s international standing as a leader in marine management. The Turnbull Government’s marine park plans are a missed opportunity to build a better future for our oceans,” said Meder.
Media Contact: AMCS Communications Manager, Ingrid Neilson 0421 972 731.
Eastern Tuna and Billfish Fishery longline fishery meeting records show that the Australian Fisheries Management Authority is investigating hotspots of protected turtle bycatch that have occurred over the last couple of years in areas that would have been strongly protected from longline fishing under marine park plans, if not for their suspension by the Abbott Government in 2013 and subsequent downgrading by the Turnbull Government:
“The rates of interaction observed are consistent with the rates observed prior to EM [‘Electronic Monitoring’, using onboard video cameras] when observers were onboard vessels*. There have been investigations as to whether there are hotspots for interactions, with Lihou Reef potentially identified as a hotspot, however this is not conclusive. Further analysis on trends within the reported interactions will be followed up with the RAG [‘Resource Assessment Group’].” p36 from 
At least one of these areas, the waters surrounding the existing protected zone around Lihou Reef in the Coral Sea, would also have been protected from longline fishing under large marine sanctuaries and what would have been Australia’s largest exclusive recreational game fishing zone. Over 240,000km2 of sanctuary protection was stripped from the Coral Sea marine park , including waters offshore of Lihou Reef, in the Turnbull Government’s marine park plans. Lihou Reef is acknowledged as so important for biodiversity that waters immediately over it have been a fully protected marine sanctuary since 1982.
Australia’s national network of sanctuaries was the result of decades of science, work by all sides of politics, and overwhelming community support. More than 80,000 Australians made a submission to the Turnbull Government last year, rejecting their proposed cuts and asking for more protection, not less. This included more than 16,000 recreational fishers.
Marine sanctuaries help protect crucial feeding and breeding areas, build resilience in the face of climate change and pollution, and bring a wealth of benefits to local communities. They are essential for our marine life and way of life.