OPINION: Winding back NSW's marine parks is a mistake

OLD DAYS: Fishermen at Julian Rocks prior to the establishment of the marine park.
OLD DAYS: Fishermen at Julian Rocks prior to the establishment of the marine park. The Northern Star Archives

JUST as they are on land, it's no mistake that many of NSW's most special places along the coast are protected as national parks in the sea.

However, the O'Farrell government has followed up its decision to allow hunting in national parks by exposing the state's sanctuaries for fish and marine life to fishing.

Like so many of you, I've spent my life around water and I can't imagine it any other way.

When I sailed solo around the world in 1986-87, I looked forward to visiting the fabled Sargasso Sea at the heart of the Bermuda Triangle. Famous for being a "golden rainforest of the sea", literally covered by seaweed, I found instead a fading legend carpeted by rubbish.

That's what motivated me to create Clean Up Australia.

Since the first clean up of Sydney Harbour in 1989, the public has demonstrated its overwhelming concern for the health of our waterways and coastal waters by acting to conserve the natural environment.

Nowhere else in the world has such a backward step been taken which allows fishing in an area set aside specifically for fish and marine life to recover and rebuild.

But this is not enough to secure the long term health of our oceans and marine life.

Pollution such as oil spills and plastics, over fishing and a lack of safe havens for fish and marine life to recover and rebuild are challenges we must share responsibility for.

The community has demonstrated its commitment to action - we look to government and to business to also do its fair share.

But something unprecedented is happening in NSW.

At a time when the scientific and economic evidence of the benefits of marine parks and sanctuaries has been acted on at a federal level - by creating the world's largest network of marine sanctuaries - and in states such as Western Australia where the Liberal government has committed to creating seven new marine parks, the NSW Government is winding back the insurance policy for ocean health these safe havens represent.

The O'Farrell Government has opened up marine sanctuaries to fishing from the shore and is considering making this permanent. It's the same as allowing hunting in national parks.

Less than seven percent of NSW waters are protected in sanctuaries. Removing that small amount of protection leaves our unique marine life exposed and vulnerable to devastation.

Nowhere else in the world has such a backward step been taken which allows fishing in an area set aside specifically for fish and marine life to recover and rebuild.

Throwing a line in from the beach may seem harmless, but with many of us doing it the impacts add up quickly. 60% of fishing in NSW happens from the shore. Recreational fishers catch almost 30%, or 5740 tonnes, of the total commercial catch in NSW of more than 19,000 tonnes. Recreational fishing is also responsible for the majority of the catch allowed for nine of the top 20 harvested species in NSW.

I'm an occasional recreational fisher and do believe that most other recreational fishers are conservation-minded as well. I also believe most recreational fishers understand that some areas must be set aside to allow stocks of fish and other marine life to rebound.

Ian Kiernan
Ian Kiernan

The government's most recent public opinion poll on the issue found strong support for sanctuaries. The 2009 poll found 85 per cent of people in NSW agreed or agreed strongly that some areas of the marine environment should be protected, even if it means recreational and commercial fishing is excluded. In the Sydney metropolitan area this support was even higher, at 89 per cent.

It takes time for the benefits of marine parks and sanctuaries to kick in, but when they do it's a bonanza for regional economies and a foundation for sustainable fishing. Just ask the locals around Solitary Islands, our state's oldest park that was declared under a Liberal government using legislation that was supported by everyone in parliament.

No one wins if our unique marine life disappears forever, but everyone benefits if we protect and sustain our ocean resources, including fish stocks.

What is happening now in NSW, however, places these achievements and benefits at risk. Short-sighted politics could reverse decades of working with the community and scientists to protect our state's most precious marine places and provide sanctuary to our remarkable marine life.

Rather than threatening to roll back protection, we should be heading in the other direction as scientists advise - to work to protect our remaining iconic places and the feeding and breeding grounds that give so much back.

The Liberal Party has a proud history of creating marine parks and its best known achievement was John Howard's decision to protect a third of the Great Barrier Reef from exploitation. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is now an economic powerhouse, supporting almost $6 billion in industry and 60,000 jobs.

I fear many of you in NSW will start thinking your efforts to protect your local environment as part of Clean Up Australia Day will have been in vain if the NSW Government pushes ahead with its destructive plan.

No one wins if our unique marine life disappears forever, but everyone benefits if we protect and sustain our ocean resources, including fish stocks.

Ian Kiernan, AO, is the founder and chairman of Clean Up Australia


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