Dr Margi Prideaux writes: A few weeks ago, the great and the good convened in Nagoya, Japan to deliberate the future of our planet. Perhaps a little melodramatic, but in many ways it’s the truth. This 10th meeting of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was every bit as important as the Climate Change meetings are. After all, the CBD itself is there to protect the genetic resources, ecosystems and species that we depend on for our quality of life and who share this planet with us. We need this protection to be sorted out, because we are devastating biodiversity at an alarming rate.

The compact that came from the meeting was long, and not surprisingly whittled into irrelevance by the incredible detail of negotiation that was applied to every word. The document is so precise, so exacting and limited in what it is prepared to say, it actually says very little. However, there are a few indicators of the direction the global community at least plans to go. One such directive is the new target for marine protected areas, that:

By 2020, at least … 10% of coastal and marine areas, especially areas of particular importance for biodiversity and ecosystem services, are conserved through effectively and equitably managed, ecologically representative and well connected systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, and integrated into the wider landscape and seascapes. (CBD Strategic Plan for Biodiversity for the Period 2011-2020: Target 11)

This is particularly pertinent for Australia because we are in the midst of deciding the level of protection to be applied to a large section of our coastline and offshore areas. The south-east declarations have been completed. Next is the south-west, from the eastern tip of Kangaroo Island to the waters off Shark Bay, then the north-west, the north and finally the east from the northern tip of Cape York to the New South Wales town of Bermagu.

We do this as a nation because pollution, over fishing, species entanglement in nets the destruction of important habitats, and the ecosystem devastation of oil spills are just some of the many threats to Australia’s remarkable marine life. If these threats continue unabated we risk joining the unprecedented global collapse of marine life where two-thirds of the world’s coral reefs are dead or dying and 90% of the world’s large fish have been fished-out.

Last week scientists from the University of Queensland have released a comprehensive and deep study, called Systematic Conservation Planning: A Network of Marine Sanctuaries for the South West Marine Region, gathering the best available scientific data and applying world leading design principles to their recommendations. The report identifies that 50% of the south-west region will need to be protected in a network of marine sanctuaries if the marine life is to remain healthy. For clarity, sanctuaries are areas where extractive uses such as commercial fishing and oil and gas are not allowed. Currently, less than 1% of the south-west region is protected from these threats.

At the same time 44 of Australia’s leading marine and social scientists in support of marine protection have released a consensus statement — “Scientific Principles for Design of Marine Protected Areas in Australia as  a peer-level guidance on the selection, design, and implementation of marine protected areas. They concur that significant protection is needed.

Earlier this month another study by the University of Queensland provided a damning assessment of the success of Australia’s national parks, marine parks and nature reserves that are failing to adequately protect more than 80% of Australia’s threatened species. Their study detailed how the fundamental aim of securing species most at risk was not being achieved. Yet another recent study by the University of the Sunshine Coast revealed ancient, giant coral reefs found on Australia undersea mountains are being wiped out by trawling on the sea floor confirming the importance of maintaining and extending Australia’s marine protected areas.

Since moving to the Environment portfolio, Minister Tony Burke has said very little publicly about the roll-out of marine protected areas around the country. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given that, in their previous term, Labor dithered on everything marine related except championing whale protection internationally. They inherited a well established, Coalition developed, marine planning process but failed to deliver anything on water, eroding confidence and credibility. Combine this with the unfortunate and poorly informed Liberal and National ‘dog-fish whistles’ to fishers in tinnies during the election and recent history probably gives little confidence to the Minister in his new role.

None-the-less, the timelines still stand, and these decisions are important ones. Indications are that the Minister will make his first and crucial decision for the south-west region soon. A huge variety of fish, sharks, whales and seals live in the south west submerged mountain ranges, deep sea canyons and both cool and tropical coral reefs. These waters provide refuge for the magnificent blue, humpback, and southern right whales, as well as bottlenose, spotted and striped dolphins. All these things matter, but perhaps what matters more is that the level of protection that Minister decides to apply will define the level of protection that will be applied to the rest of Australia’s waters for the next 10 to 20 years.

Tim Nicol from the Conservation Council of Western Australia said that “the federal government now has the scientific evidence it needs to confidently make important decisions about the future health of the oceans and marine life in Australia’s south-west”.  Add to this the international consensus and the decision would appear to be a clear cut case. His confidence should be high. If the Minister chooses the side of science he invests in the future. He will also take the first steps towards the largest conservation contribution in Australian history, delivering the biggest network of marine protected areas in the world. If he doesn’t, it will be a once in a lifetime opportunity lost.

Dr Margi Prideaux is an independent specialist in migratory species protection policy & law, with 20 years of marine policy and negotiation background, working with the Australian and international conservation movement. She runs the WildPolitics.net blog.

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