It was only in 1984 that the Hawke Labour Government did a deal for joint management of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park aimed at stopping oil drilling and exploration.   Times change. In 2003 the Brack’s Labor government declared a series of Marine Parks which targeted to fishing industry and allowed for oil exploration and drilling — something that almost slipped under the green radar as prominent conservation groups almost universally supported these fishing bans for over around 5% of the state’s waters.   Some may have missed it but the fishermen fired up. Port Campbell fishermen fish the rugged west coast where there is no anchorage. They lower their small boats into the water with a crane and retrieve them the same way. Despite their small size and low impact, these cray and abalone fisheries were subjected to a large “No Take Zone” forcing them to travel another hour each way from port to fish. They and the public were told these reserved areas were to preserve fish stocks and enhance the remaining fisheries.   Then they learned that this No take Zone would be subject to seismic testing before and after its declaration. Seismic testing, that is, using compressed air to create blasts on the sea surface powerful enough to penetrate the earth’s crust with the reverberation to be detected by long, fluid-filled streamers towed behind seismic vessels. They were understandably outraged.   This small group of fishermen surprised the Victorian Government with the ferocity of their campaign, recruiting both the Greens and the Democrats to speak on their behalf in the Senate, citing whale deaths off Spain attributed to seismic testing .   This small, well-organised group of fishermen had achieved an extraordinary amount of press coverage, and in late in 2003 John Thwaites, the Victorian Environment Minister, announced that seismic testing would be banned in Port Campbell Marine Park. A year later he introduced legislation banning seismic testing in all Marine Parks citing the “precautionary principle” and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), reluctant to even talk to the fishing industry during the campaign, claimed credit for the win .   Last Thursday Senator Abetz and Minister Turnbull announced a number of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for Bass Strait, off Tasmania and South Australia covering approximately a quarter of a million square kilometres.   These proposed MPAs ban the key sectors that have traditionally sustained small boat fisheries of Bass Strait and around Tasmania. These same MPAs allow the oil and gas industry to drill, undertake seismic testing and lay pipelines in all but two strangely shaped areas, less than a third of the proposed MPAs, in which all activities are banned.   By identifying commercial fisheries as the principle threat to the marine environment the Commonwealth may yet take a step toward allowing oil and gas exploration and drilling in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park using the Southeast Marine Protected Areas as a precedent.   It will be interesting to see if the ACF, the Greens and the Democrats look this Trojan gift horse in the mouth. If they do, they might see an oil rig.   Send your tips to [email protected] or submit them anonymously here .

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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