"Australia's precious marine environments have been permanently protected with the proclamation of the world's biggest network of marine reserves."
That's how the federal government describes
the recent creation of marine reserves covering 2.3 million square kilometres of ocean, a decision which made the news worldwide. But is it accurate?
What if the reserves were designed to minimise impact on commercial and recreational fishing and the oil and gas industries, and therefore minimise real protection for marine biodiversity? The government may be simply taking its policy of reserving also-ran, non-commercial tracts of land and applying it to the ocean.
For the casual observer, the map of Australia's marine reserves
might cause delight or alarm. People concerned about the future of marine biodiversity might feel the big new reserves will secure the future of species and ecosystems. Those interested in commercial or recreational fishing, or offshore oil and gas development, could be concerned about these reserves. But both reactions may be misplaced.
With the planet’s, and Australia’s, biodiversity in decline, protected areas -- tracts of land or sea where extractive uses such as clearing, trawling, logging and long-lining are excluded or greatly reduced in impact -- are crucial. But not all protected areas are as effective as they should be. On land, most are in the wrong places. They are "residual" in being concentrated in areas with the least promise for commercial land uses, to minimise financial and political costs.
This widespread tendency leaves those species and ecosystems most exposed to past and impending threats to languish outside reserves while formal "protection" is given to areas that were de facto protected by lack of suitability for commercial uses. The government is now repeating this pattern of residual reservation in Australia’s very extensive marine waters. It becomes apparent looking at the map: