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Australia’s new marine protected areas: why they won’t work

By Bob Pressey, James Cook University

Australia’s Network of Marine Reserves (c) Commonwealth

On land and in the sea, we’re losing sight of what nature conservation is about. We’ve become dangerously focused on protected areas, but rarely consider what they’re supposed to achieve. One result is that biodiversity is declining almost everywhere while protected areas expand.

Why the apparent paradox? An important reason is that protected areas tend to be in the wrong places. On land, it’s a safe generalisation that protected areas are biased to “residual” places – those with least promise for commercial uses. In some regions, this is because only residual landscapes survive in anything like their natural state.

But another important factor is political pragmatism. Electorates in many countries like the idea of nature conservation but are undiscerning about exactly what this means. Governments can therefore present residual protected areas – and the more extensive the better – as real progress for conservation. The incentive for residual conservation is to minimise financial and political cost.

As systems of marine protected areas expand, their residual nature is becoming obvious too. One of the world’s best examples of a residual system of marine protected areas was announced in November 2012 by the Australian Government.

Why would residual protected areas be a problem? Most importantly, they contribute little to the real goals of nature conservation: to avert threats and avoid loss of biodiversity. They tend toward parts of jurisdictions that were de facto protected by remoteness and unsuitability for commercial uses. Meanwhile, the processes that threaten biodiversity continue largely unabated and declines in biodiversity continue.

Second, by giving a false impression of conservation progress, residual protected areas use up societies’ tolerances of protection, progressively making future protected areas, especially those that might be effective in averting threats, more difficult to establish.

Third, residual protected areas place the onus of real conservation on off-reserve measures. These vary greatly in effectiveness and many can be diluted, ignored, or removed at political or administrative whim.

These problems mean that measuring conservation progress in terms of the extent of protected areas is usually meaningless. Another implication is that residual protected areas can produce outcomes that are worse than neutral. By failing to avert present or impending threats while pre-empting later protected areas that could be more effective, their contribution can be irretrievably negative.

With those points in mind, here is a brief review of the recently established marine protected areas in Australian Commonwealth waters, covering more than 2.3 million square kilometres. The government considers these areas have confirmed Australia as a world leader in environmental protection. But how much difference did the new marine reserves make to the future of Australia’s marine biodiversity?

  • The green (no-take) zones are concentrated in the deeper waters near the edge of Australia’s marine jurisdiction, barely touching the continental shelf where threats to biodiversity are concentrated. Their placement has been adjusted to make little difference to fishing and no difference to oil and gas development. This repeats the pattern of the 2007 marine protected areas in the south-east region where marine protected areas, and especially green zones, were largely absent from the “zone of importance” where high biodiversity conservation values overlapped with greatest threats.
  • The extensive new protected areas in IUCN category IV and, especially, VI zones allow various forms of fishing and many allow extraction of oil and gas. Australia’s 2011 State of Environment report found that fishing has caused declines in target and non-target species in several of our marine planning regions and that the cumulative impacts of oil and gas extraction are not being managed.
  • The “jewel in the crown” of the new network is the enormous mosaic of protection zones in the Coral Sea – nationally marginal for commercial fishing . The no-take zone is furthest from land, typical of the other marine planning regions. The zones that prohibit pelagic long-lining have been configured to avoid all but the most marginal areas for this fishing method. Oil and gas exploration and extraction are prohibited throughout the region, although hydrocarbon reserves appear to be absent (they are concentrated in the north-west and south-east planning regions where oil and gas developments are avoided by or permitted in protected areas established in 2007 and 2012).

The Australian Government, in minimising the impact of marine protected areas on commercial and industrial interests, has also minimised the contributions of these areas to protecting marine biodiversity. The conservation benefits are vanishingly small in proportion to size of the new areas.

This approach works politically as long as conservation groups and the general public believe that size matters. Apparently they do. The Government’s media release stated: “Of the 80,000 submissions received, the vast majority of submissions were supportive of the Government’s plan to create the world’s largest network of marine parks.” The Australian Conservation Foundation, Australian Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace, among many others, applauded the announcement.

This praise indicates one of two things: the green groups have confused means (protected areas) and ends (making a difference) or, for reasons of their own, have decided to follow the Government’s lead. Either way, Australia’s marine biodiversity faces a problem – a mutually reinforcing combination of political expediency and commendation from influential NGOs and the public.

One of Hans Christian Andersen’s cautionary tales comes readily to mind. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes, Australia’s new marine protected areas don’t involve much substance but have attracted a good deal of public praise. An important difference, though, is that Andersen’s story ends with public outcry at being duped. There are plenty of people in Australia who understand marine conservation and think the new marine reserves are a conservation failure, but few can say so publicly. That’s another story.

Australia’s world leadership in marine conservation was rightly recognised in 1975 and 2004 with the establishment and extensive rezoning, respectively, of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The 2007 and now the 2012 Commonwealth marine protected areas are a big step backward from the 2004 milestone.

Regaining world leadership in marine conservation needs two things. We must judge progress by moving from meaningless counts of square kilometres to measuring what actually counts – avoided loss or averted threats (the methods are there and ready to use). And we must have the courage to accept and apply the apparently radical idea that marine conservation is about making a difference, not about placing protected areas where they will be least inconvenient to business as usual.

Bob Pressey does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
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January 27, 2013   No Comments

Untangling international agreements in the Coral Triangle

Deutsch: Lagekarte des Korallendreiecks

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A new article on international governance arrangements relating to the Coral Triangle has just been published in Marine Policy. Using a network approach, P Fidelman, from the University of the Sunshine Coast, and J Ekstrom, University of California Berkeley, examine whether and how institutional complexity can be conducive to large-scale marine management.  They show that regional marine governance is marked by jurisdiction and functional overlaps, and suggest inter-institutional learning and institutional synergy as processes to cope with complexity and fragmentation. The abstract reads:

The Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI), adopted recently in response to the degradation of coastal and marine environments in the Southeast Asia-Pacific’s Coral Triangle, emphasises the need for using existing international and regional fora to promote implementation. Large-scale marine initiatives, including the CTI, very often must contend with a remarkably complex institutional system. This raises the question of whether and how such complexity can be conducive to marine resources management. To answer this question, this paper aims to better understand the governance context in which the CTI was established (i.e., map governance fragmentation/complexity), and explore how such a context may support the implementation of the CTI goals (i.e., examine normative interplay). To conduct this examination, it uses an objective method that allows users to view and explore institutional arrangements through a network approach. By documenting the system of existing institutions in the Coral Triangle, the study shows that the Coral Triangle governance system is illustrative of those of international environmental governance. It involves multiple policy domains, and features different institutional arrangements and variability in terms of geographical scope and main subject matter. Such a system is complex and fragmented, marked by jurisdiction and functional overlaps. The paper suggests interplay management, such as inter-institutional learning and enhancing institutional synergy, as a promising process to promote inter-institutional coordination.

Source: FIDELMAN, P.; EKSTROM, J. 2012. Mapping Seascapes of International Environmental Arrangements in the Coral Triangle. Marine Policy, 36(5): 993-1004; doi: 10.1016/j.marpol.2012.02.006 or download manuscript version.

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March 15, 2012   No Comments

Research on Ocean Circulation and Blue Carbon

Just received the link to the video on the IAI research on how ocean circulation affects blue carbon, which examines the links between biological carbon sequestration, chemical absorption, physical transport and possible re-release to the atmosphere; and what this implies for carbon management options.

For more information on this topic see the post Is continental shelf production mitigating climate change?

December 7, 2011   No Comments

Feeding a Growing Global Population

Presentation by Jonathan Foley from the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota.

How will nine billion people be able to eat without undermining the very basis for food production? This was the starting point for a seminar in Stockholm on 7 November.

The seminar, which was organised by the Swedish International Agriculture Network Initiative (SIANI) brought together international leaders with early-career researchers working on global food security.

In this presentation, Jonathan Foley articulated the key challenges to global food security and highlight the latest trends and projections.

Foley recently co-authored together with centre director Johan Rockström and others the article Solutions for a Cultivated Planet which was published in Nature in October 2011.

Source: Stockholm Resilience Centre

December 5, 2011   No Comments

Meeting the Humanities on Climate Change

July 2011

The July issue of Nature Climate Change brings a commentary by Mike Hulmes (Professor of Climate Change at the University of East Anglia, UK) where he argues for greater attention to be paid to the interpretative social sciences and humanities in our attempts to understand the implications of climate change. Nature Climate Change introduces his commentary:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is hugely influential in setting the tone for wider social and political engagement with climate change. Mike Hulme highlights the limited uptake of social science material into the IPCC assessment reports despite the proliferation of social science research on climate issues. He argues that nature and society are so deeply entangled that research must strive to examine how each is shaping the other, and then outlines the changes needed to close the gap between arts and sciences on issues of climate change and beyond.

Prof. Hulme’s commentary also applies to other pressing contemporary environmental issues, which debate is very often dominated by natural science disciplines.

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July 4, 2011   No Comments

Identifying Governance Strategies that Support Conservation Outcomes

pnas 29 March 2011

This week’s issue of PNAS brings an article on the performance of governance strategies in achieving three conservation outcomes: provision of ecosystem services, sustainability of resource use, and conservation of biodiversity. In the article, R. E. Kenward and colleagues develop an analytical framework that attempts to explain how economic, societal and ecological impacts of different governance strategies are influenced by three broad categories of variables : (1) initial capacity, (2) management priorities and (3) main processes and tools aimed at those priorities. Thirty four local and international case studies were used in the analysis. The findings support the benefits of adaptive management and the role of leadership. The conservation outcomes investigated were associated with different sets of governance strategies. It means that a combination of strategies will be required for achieving simultaneously provision of ecosystem services, sustainability of resource use, and conservation of biodiversity. In that case, some compromise would be expected because governance strategies that benefit one outcome may not necessarily be supportive of the other two. For example, strategies featuring ecological priorities seem to benefit biodiversity conservation whereas those featuring economic priorities seem to benefit ecosystem services.

Kenward et al. 2011. Identifying governance strategies that effectively support ecosystem services, resource sustainability, and biodiversity. PNAS 118(13): 5308–5312.

March 31, 2011   No Comments

Multilateral Governance in Large-scale Marine Systems

Purple anemone (Heteractis magnifica) and resi...

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The Reefs at Risk Revisited, a report by the World Resources Institute released late last month, warns of a “global coral crisis” with 75% of coral reefs currently in danger from overfishing, pollution and climate change. If these threats persist, it is estimated that more than 90% of reefs will be at risk by 2030 and nearly all reefs will be at risk by 2050.

At the centre of this “global coral crisis” is the Coral Triangle, a region regarded as the epicentre of marine life diversity – with 76% of all known coral species and 53% of the world’s coral reefs, where more than 100 million people depend directly on marine and coastal resources for income, livelihood and food security.

In 2009, the governments of Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Timor Leste, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands adopted the Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security (CTI) as an attempt to reverse the decline in the marine environment and pursue a more sustainable use of marine resources in the region. The governance of large-scale marine systems, such as the Coral Triangle can be remarkably complex and fragmented. At the regional level, it is critical to consider the governance “seascape” in which large-scale action is designed and implemented.

Dr Julia Ekstrom presented this morning at the Resilience 2011 Conference, Arizona State University, the paper “Navigating Multilateral Governance in the Coral Triangle”, which examines the extant governance for the CTI region and how multilateral arrangements relate to the priorities of the CTI (seascapes, ecosystem approach, marine protected areas, climate change adaptation and threatened species). In the paper, it was undertaken a multidimensional exploration of 190 documents (conventions, treaties, agreements, action plans, memoranda of understanding etc.) by using text analysis and network diagrams.

Several multilateral arrangements apply to the priorities of the CTI; for example, fisheries is a topic covered in 69% of the arrangements. The Coral Triangle appears to suffer from “Treaty Congestion” that can generate tensions between environmental regimes, characteristic of ineffective responses to environmental degradation. The paper suggests that the CTI should seek to coordinate its actions with those of related efforts to maximise implementation and reduce overlaps and conflicts.


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March 16, 2011   No Comments

Economic Incentives for Marine Conservation

The Economic Incentives for Marine Conservation guidebook, produced by Conservation International in collaboration with the Integration & Application Network of the University of Maryland, has just been released.

Incentives guidebook

The challenge of making conservation economically attractive is a critical hurdle for the creation and effective management of marine managed areas. This document describes three approaches to shaping incentives, project design and tool selection, and provides 27 case studies worldwide where incentives were employed in changing behaviour.

The guidebook can be downloaded at

January 20, 2011   No Comments