Government is flying blind on marine management

We are making key decisions about our use of our coastal waters without having the full picture.

Some of the strongest opposition to the culling of sharks around Australia’s coasts comes from those directly exposed to the terrifying trauma of a shark attack – the victims and their families.

Rodney Fox is a survivor of a South Australian shark attack who believes it’s unacceptable to shed more blood: “We have to learn to live with them.” The partner of a diver killed near Esperance (WA) early this year said the victim believed that better-protected fish stocks would lessen the risk to people in the water.

These are not isolated statements. Over the years they have come from people and their families on the receiving end of shark attacks. Their simple message is that killing sharks because they sometimes attack people is unjustified and pointless.

It’s a hopeful sign that old perceptions of the shark as a dangerous pest to be exterminated might one day die out. Science says clearly that as top predators sharks protect habitats by limiting numbers of prey species, and strengthen those species’ gene pools by eating weaker animals.

Most people think of the sea as just its surface, where the waves are. Those who know it better understand that it is a natural environment, many metres and even kilometres deep, to be protected and respected for what it is, not treated as a limitless resource for human benefit.

Two current publications – one by the Tasmanian government, the other by the Australia Institute – highlight the need for authorities to get really stuck into this issue, sooner rather than later.

Last month primary industries minister Guy Barnett released a recreational sea fishing strategy discussion paper, seeking public input to help him decide the “right balance” between recreational and commercial fishing in Tasmanian waters while ensuring fish stocks remain sustainable.

The discussion paper points to the importance of recreational fishing to the Tasmanian community and its need for support. This is certainly true to the extent that the current bias in favour of support for commercial activities over recreational fishing should be rectified.

The paper also suggests that sustainability of stocks, and regulation to prevent high-impact fishing methods, are important. Fishers should be involved in citizen science to help everyone better understand what’s at stake.

At the same time though, the paper states the case for “targeted promotion of Tasmania as a fishing tourism destination” and raises the prospect of changing group fishing rules, arguing that such changes could have “significant economic benefits”.

The contradictions inherent in the discussion paper, between looking for commercial opportunities in recreational fishing and sustaining fish stocks, are a classic illustration of why an integrated management regime for the coastal marine environment is so badly needed. You cannot justify increased fishing activity if you don’t know what’s happening to species and ecosystems.

As it happens, the Australia Institute paper proposes just that – an integrated, ecosystem-based management regime that accommodates current and future uses of the entire marine estate for all uses, users and values.

The report, written by marine biologist Eloise Carr and the Australia Institute’s Leanne Minshull, pointed to a complete absence of any integrated analysis of the state of the marine environment. That criticism can be extended to the whole of Tasmania, which hasn’t seen a State of Environment report since 2009. It’s supposed to happen every five years.

All of which underlines a deep and abiding failure in governments and the major parties to attend to the health of natural Tasmania, on which all our prosperity depends. But if natural resources on land are neglected, how much worse could things be for resources hidden beneath the waves? Especially considering the impact of a persistent severe heatwave in waters off eastern Tasmania.

It is often alleged that too much of Tasmania is tied up in protected areas. But the Australia Institute report points out that under 4 per cent of Tasmania’s marine environment is protected even partially, about half the Australian average and well below the global average of 5.3 per cent. The situation cries out for a full reappraisal of the values we assign to our marine environment.

A sector-by-sector approach that puts marine farming, commercial fishing, recreational fishing and other recreational uses in separate baskets is a recipe for disaster. We need to consider all those elements together, against the background of improving the overall health of our marine habitats.

We cannot effectively manage resources we don’t know. The first step has to be resuming five-year comprehensive state-of-the-environment reports, covering both land and sea, which effectively determine decisions about future use. Without that, we’re flying blind.

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