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Wednesday, 23 October 2002
Page: 5777

Senator BARTLETT (Leader of the Australian Democrats) (6:25 PM) —I move:

That the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Regulations 2002 (No. 5), as contained in Statutory Rules 2002 No. 209 and made under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act 1975, be disallowed.

This is an important issue that needs extensive examination and explanation, and because of the time and a desire to have a decision on this before 6.50 p.m. I will truncate my remarks rather severely, which is unfortunate, but I will put some things on the record. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority recently completed their rezoning of the far north section of the marine park, the most northerly of four zones. It has been a lengthy process, extending back to the mid-1990s, which has resulted in some relatively small changes in the zoning plan.

Despite some early optimism, the far northern section zoning plan was unfortunately not used as an opportunity to ensure that protection and conservation were implemented as primary objectives of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act. In early discussions for that zoning plan, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority recommended that Princess Charlotte Bay—a major dugong habitat, which is what this regulation applies to—be designated as a green or a no-take zone. As a result of pressure from the commercial fishing industry, the subsequent draft and the final draft recommended a lesser designation of a conservation park zone equivalent to a yellow or marine park A zone under the zoning plans in other regions of the marine park. This permits line fishing and collecting. It does not permit trawling and netting and is intended to provide for conservation of the bay in perpetuity. It is not an ideal solution in the Democrats' view, and many felt that the conservation values of Princess Charlotte Bay justified, and still justify, stronger protection. Nonetheless, that is the level of protection provided to it. A number of activities are permitted in the conservation zone only with a permit. Commercial netting and trawling activities are not included as activities that could be permitted. However, the federal government added a new clause to the zoning plan that provides that a person may also use or enter the Princess Charlotte Bay area of the conservation park zone for commercial netting or crabbing if the person has the permission of the authority to use or enter the area for that purpose.

There is a requirement that certain conditions are met before such a permit is granted. These non-conforming uses are permitted as a result of legislation created through the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Amendment Bill 2001, which was intended to strengthen the capacity of the marine park authority to make changes to fishing practices in a timely fashion. Prior to that amendment, the authority, for instance, could not remove legal commercial fishing from a high conservation area except by amending the zoning plan, a process that can take several years. The amendment that went through last year allowed the making of regulations so that the authority can require a permit for commercial fishing in certain zones that were previously open to commercial fishing without regulation. In other words, it allowed a speedier management decision for conservation purposes to be made.

As a result of continuing pressure from the fishing industry, there was consideration given to a phasing out of fishing activities in Princess Charlotte Bay rather than an immediate prohibition. That would have permitted all existing commercial fishing in the bay to continue until the licence holders died, which is a very long phase-out indeed. That was never implemented. Instead, after the most recent federal election and renewed industry pressure, these regulations were devised. These regulations, which the Democrats and Labor are aiming to disallow today, effectively reinstitute commercial fishing in Princess Charlotte Bay, in what is supposed to be a conservation zone. The claim in the explanatory memorandum that this is a capping effort in the bay is simply nonsense. The claim that permits are conditional is also a nonsense, as the only condition precedent to acquiring a permit for commercial fishing is that the applicant be a commercial fisher who has previously fished in the bay. In other words, all the commercial fishers who currently fish, and in the past have regularly commercially fished, in Princess Charlotte Bay will be allowed to continue to do so despite the zoning of the bay. That regulation makes a mockery of the entire zoning structure.

The zones are intended to set out the types of uses that can occur in each of the six zones regularly used in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The regulations are not designed to circumvent the restrictions contained in the zoning plan; they are intended to elaborate on the requirements associated with permitted uses in each zone or to outline the criteria for permitting an activity that is not expressly prohibited in the zoning plan. Passing a regulation that allows rapid response for the purposes of conservation is an entirely legitimate exception to this broad zoning and regulatory structure. Tabling a regulation such as this, which is intended to circumvent the zoning plan and circumvent the entire rezoning process, is simply not acceptable and the Democrats do not support such efforts. There is no excuse for such a regulation, especially considering the conservation values of Princess Charlotte Bay and the minimal number of highly protected areas in the marine park—fewer than five per cent.

Damage can be caused by fishing, and the need to ensure that the representative areas process is capable of succeeding without interference at every step of the way is crucial. This may be the most dangerous consequence of these regulations. If zones that ostensibly exclude commercial fishing can now allow commercial fishing by regulatory stealth, then the entire purpose of the zoning plans and the representative areas process is called into question. It is a threshold issue. The representative areas process, which the Democrats have repeatedly supported, is the largest and most important initiative undertaken by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority since the marine park was declared over 25 years ago. It is an attempt to rezone the entire marine park, and one of its objectives is to significantly increase the number and size of highly protected areas.

That increased protection is critical if we are going to ensure the long-term survival of the marine park—and that is for the benefit of commercial fishers, recreational fishers, the tourist industry and others as well as the general public. The representative areas process has been in preparation for a number of years now. In the last two to three years it has started to take shape and the entire marine park has been mapped according to bioregions. There is no doubt in the scientific community that a significant increase in the number and size of green zones is necessary. These will not protect the park from all threats of course, but it will be a significant advance. The representative areas process must succeed, as the current prognosis for the marine park is not good. This regulation must not succeed, in the Democrats' view. To allow this precedent to be set would create a dangerous future prospect for similar moves by governments down the track that would undermine months and years of work by the entire community and the marine park authority in ensuring adequate protection of the environmental values of the marine park.

I urge all senators to support this disallowance motion. It is a crucial one for protecting the conservation values of Princess Charlotte Bay—conservation values and protection that were put in place after a long process of evaluation and consultation. That protection should not be reversed overnight by regulation that would effectively allow the reintroduction of trawling and commercial fishing in that marine park. I commend the disallowance motion to the Senate. I thank Senator McLucas, in particular, for her support and her commitment to the protection of the ecological values of the marine park.