Marine Sanctuaries Recommended for Half Australia’s South West Oceans

BRISBANE, Queensland, Australia, November 11, 2010 (ENS) – Half of the marine region to the south west of Australia will need to be protected in a network of marine sanctuaries to minimize risks to marine life, fish stocks and ecosystems, finds the first science-based plan for managing Australia’s oceans, unveiled today.

Currently, less than one percent of Australia’s South West Marine Region is protected from threats such as overfishing and oil spills.

The result of two years of analysis by the Ecology Centre at the University of Queensland and the involvement of 44 of the country’s marine and social scientists, the plan has been developed to safeguard marine life and at the same time protect economic and social interests.

Shark Bay, Western Australia is the westernmost limit of the South West Marine Region. (Photo by Stark Mevins)

The report was commissioned by the Pew Charitable Trusts but was prepared independently by Professor Hugh Possingham and four other scientists from the Ecology Centre. Dated October 21, 2009, the plan was released today.

The federal government is expected to rely on the study to make decisions for new marine sanctuaries in Australia’s South West Marine Region later this year.

“This blueprint for the South West represents best scientific practice to achieve high quality cost-effective marine sanctuaries and conservation outcomes in the face of vast uncertainties and ever-growing pressures for economic development,” said Professor Possingham.

“The extensive analysis and research conducted in the South West will plug a hole in our knowledge of our oceans and help government planners make much more accurate decisions when designing protected areas,” Professor Possingham said.

The University of Queensland plan represents a historic opportunity for Australia to become a world leader in marine conservation, said an alliance of 11 environment groups.

The Save Our Marine Life alliance said today that the scientific study will provide the federal government with the information it needs to make accurate decisions about establishing a network of marine sanctuaries in the South West Marine Region.

“The scientific evidence in support of a network of large marine sanctuaries in the south west is compelling,” said Dr. Gilly Llewellyn from WWF Australia.

Seal Bay on Kangaroo Island, South Australia (Photo by Judd Christie)

“The University of Queensland’s blueprint for Australia’s southwest oceans shows us that we can protect our unique marine life and ensure that we can continue to fish and benefit economically from our oceans,” said Chris Smyth from the Australian Conservation Foundation.

In the early 1990s, the Australian government identified the need for a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas, which led to an agreement between federal and state governments to establish such a system.

The South West Marine Region encompasses Commonwealth waters from near Kangaroo Island in South Australia extending to waters near Shark Bay, a World Heritage Area in Western Australia. The region covers about 1.2 million square kilometers of coastal waters, continental shelf and deepwater ecosystems, and contains many endemic species and unique features.

There is a far greater level of unique marine life found in the south west than on the Great Barrier Reef, according to the report.

The 50 percent level of protection recommended by the Ecology Centre would afford safeguards to a total of 1,465 species from mammals, fish and birds to invertebrates.

Safeguards would cover 57 species of fish and marine life listed under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

The light grey area is the South West Marine Region with potential marine sanctuaries shown in blue. (Map courtesy University of Queensland)

The plan also would protect 486 underwater features supporting marine life, such as depth zones, seascape types, geomorphic structures, and fish assemblages.

A blueprint for protection of fish stocks and marine life in sanctuaries does not equate to a 50 percent loss to socio-economic activities, according to the Ecology Centre.

The report, “Systematic Conservation Planning – A Network of Marine Sanctuaries for the South West Marine Region,” details ways to safeguard marine life and protect economic and social interests by maximizing the compactness of good sanctuary solutions.

The University of Queensland also released Scientific Principles for Design of Marine Protected Areas in Australia written by the 44 consulting scientists, which provides peer-level guidance on the selection, design, and implementation of marine protected areas.

Using the Marxan software, researchers were able to identify the location of a network of marine sanctuaries in the south west that meet the Scientific Principles and also have the smallest impact on existing ocean uses such as shipping, petroleum development, and commercial and recreational fishing.

“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,” said Tim Nicol from the Conservation Council of Western Australia.

Professor Possingham sees the principles behind the plan as extendable to all of Australia’s marine areas, saying, “What we have designed here for the oceans of south west of Australia can now be rolled out to help make more accurate decisions for managing and conserving the north west, north and east marine regions of the country.”

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