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Thursday, 29 November 2012
Page: 10169

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (09:31): I rise to speak on the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Amendment (Bioregional Plans) Bill 2011, reminding myself this morning that we only spoke about this same issue very recently. It is an issue that has been near and dear to my heart over the years—marine protected areas.

I have been involved with marine protected areas through my research at the University of Tasmania over the years, and I volunteered my time to consult with conservation groups such as the ACF and the Wilderness Society. In the rollout of marine protected areas in South Australia, I have briefed both the South Australian Liberal Party and Labor Party over the years on the economics of marine protected areas. And, of course, the economics are closely tied to the science of marine protected areas. But I will get back to that in a minute.

Essentially, what we are debating here this morning is the role of science: the importance of science in policy and decision making, and whether the government should be able to overturn good science for political reasons. Clearly, this has been a big issue in the chamber with the supertrawler debate over the last six months. I and other members of the Greens and, of course, recreational fishers and a large section of the environment movement have been accused of being anti-science in our questioning of the allocation of the quota for a very large fishing vessel with freezing capacity and the potential risks that poses to Australia's marine resources. In this case it was a small pelagic fishery.

The argument has been put very clearly by the Liberals, particularly by Senator Colbeck, who I expect is going to speak next, that the decision to allocate that quota was made on good science. There are a number of scientists from different agencies who were involved in those decision-making processes. It is interesting that the Greens moved to disallow that quota. The argument was very clearly put that parliament should not have the ability to interfere with the good science of that decision. Certainly, it was suggested that we were being populist and politicising a scientific debate.

I find it very hard to reconcile that logic with the Liberals doing exactly the same thing with marine protected areas, which is essentially what this bill is about, because marine protected areas have been based on years of scientific research. I will fill that detail in in a second, but there is over 30 years of research—not just in Australia, in places like South Australia, but all around the world. Thousands of scientific reports have looked at both the science—

Senator Colbeck: Thousands!

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thousands —and I can give you the source of that quote, Senator Colbeck—have focused on the scientific principles that underlie the benefits of marine protected areas.

Benefits can be increased biomass, increased fecundity and providing buffers against risks in our very complex marine ecosystems; and there can also be, of course, economic benefits and economic costs—which is, no doubt, one of the key reasons that the Liberals are casting concern over the rollout of marine protected areas around the country.

The concept behind a marine protected area is very simple; it is an insurance policy. This is unlike our land-based ecosystems, where we can actually send scientists into places like forests or wetlands and we can actually do science that is visible. We can take samples and we can have easy access to the resource. Of course, that still has a long way to go in terms of how we value our ecosystem services and the science behind that. But when you look at a maritime ecosystem, a lot of what we are focused on is underwater, and it is very difficult, very expensive and very costly to get the exact information that you need.

This has been widely recognised as an issue with marine protected areas over the years. It is not like you can suddenly and easily access the bottom of the ocean floor, potentially kilometres underwater. So with ocean ecosystems we have a much larger uncertainty in our studies and analysis of things such as the biomass of fish species, or the potential risks of extinction of species, or whether the biomasses are at a level where they can be commercially exploited. There is no doubt—and this has come up with the supertrawler debate as well—that it is expensive and costly to do the scientific research that is necessary to understand issues such as biomass and its extraction in our ecosystems. It is expensive, it is difficult and it is complex because marine ecosystems are influenced by thousands of variables.

What is the benefit of having a marine protected area? The benefit of putting aside an area for conservation is really simple. Marine protected areas can be multiple use; they can be no-take zones, which do not allow for activities such as commercial or recreational fisheries; they can exclude other extractive industries such as oil and gas or even tourism; they can leave an area alone. The key reason for doing that is that it provides a risk buffer from what both scientists and economists call exogenous shocks—in other words, things we can put into models for simulation purposes but that we cannot necessarily predict with any certainty.

A really good example is in Tasmania at the moment, with the rock lobster industry on the east coast of Tasmania being shut down because of an exogenous shock—a toxicity impact from algal blooms. We also know in relation to the rock lobster industry and the small pelagic fishery that ocean temperature changes, both at the surface and the subsurface, have been responsible for the productivity of those fisheries. So climate change issues are also exogenous shocks. We have had viruses in our fisheries in species such as abalone. Given the best fisheries management practices in the world—and I am quite happy to accept the argument that Australia has some of the best managed fisheries in the world—we still see declines in species. With all the best intentions and all the best science, we have examples such as the rock lobster industry in Tasmania that show that sometimes we do not get it right. That is no-one's fault. That is because these ecosystems are very complex and the variables that influence them are very difficult to predict. Even the Atlantis model, which CSIRO have constructed and based out of Hobart, cannot possibly accurately predict some of these impacts. So it is really simple: if we accept that we have limitations in our understanding of our ecosystems, that we do not know everything, then we need to put aside some areas that we cannot touch. That is what marine protected areas are designed to do.

A lot of the variables that influence how effective marine protected areas are in rebuilding our marine ecosystems depend on factors such as how denuded they are in the first place, the ocean currents, the bathymetry of ocean floors, the existence of other species, and all these variables need to be modelled. But the studies we have on existing marine protected areas show us that if we put an area aside and leave it alone, then over a period of time—it does not happen straight away—we observe what both scientists and economists call spillover effects. We see a build-up of biomass as we do not fish the area, as we take that pressure off it. Clearly, fishing is a man-made activity that puts pressure on ecosystems. We know that overfishing all round the world has been one of the most significant causes of species decline and loss of biomass. There are some really famous examples, not necessarily in Australia but certainly internationally, that no-one in this chamber would dispute have led to species collapse in commercial fisheries.

If we take the human element out of it, we have to assume that other impacts will occur in our marine protected areas such as from climate change. Agricultural run-off is another really good example of a man-made influence that negatively impacts on our marine ecosystems. We have also seen nutrient changes. We can see issues with shipping and pollution from oil and gas. What we saw recently with the BP spill in the US is a very good example of where the externalities posed by commercial activities in marine protected areas can cause extensive damage to marine ecosystems. So, again, if you put aside an area in the ocean, which is a really simple concept, then that is an insurance policy for future generations to allow marine species to grow in numbers. If you take a lot of that pressure off, you clearly have at least the ability to recoup some of what you have already lost. Over time, these spillover effects, which will include the building of biomass and will vary depending on what species you are discussing, will produce benefits in the areas surrounding the marine protected areas.

I mentioned in the chamber a month ago that the first marine protected area was discovered by accident. It was not protected because people wanted more fish or wanted to leave an exploited resource alone. It was protected because the Space Shuttle and, before that, the Saturn rockets needed a security exclusion zone at Cape Kennedy, which used to be called Cape Canaveral. That exclusion zone varies between 50 and 30 miles, or up to 40 or 50 kilometres. People started noticing that areas surrounding that exclusion zone were very abundant in fish life and other marine species, and that was where the first studies occurred. So marine protected areas were discovered by accident, thanks to the Cape Kennedy space station. That was the birth of the application of science to marine protected areas and the benefits they may have.

I mentioned earlier that there have been a number of studies, and I want to read a quick version of a report put together by Dr Melissa Nursey-Bray at the University of Adelaide. She summarised 48 recent scientific reports on the science of marine protected areas, outlining all their recommendations in terms of the positive impact they have had on fisheries and, in some cases, where the evidence has not shown that. There have been some examples where marine protected areas have not necessarily increased the fecundity or the biomass of fish species, and there are good reasons for that.

These studies were from right across the world: from Arabia, Spain, South Africa, the Philippines, New Zealand, South Australia, Tasmania—including off Maria Island which is a very small marine reserve—Great Britain, the USA—and that includes Florida, California and Maine—Kenya, Fiji, Western Australia and the Bahamas. Wherever marine protected areas have been scientifically studied they have been shown to have benefits to fisheries. One specific report actually summarised 89 separate studies dating back to 1992, and that was just one of the reports that Dr Nursey-Bray aggregated in her report. That was what the Los Angeles Times recently focused on when they wrote a story on the science behind marine protected areas. They said:

In a survey of 89 scientific papers, UC Santa Barbara researchers found that 90% of marine reserves around the world had more fish, 84% had much larger fish and shellfish and 59% had a far greater variety of marine life than did adjacent waters—

that were not protected. They went on:

So far, the spillover effect hasn't won many converts among anglers, who disdain it as "junk science," and fear new limits on where they can fish.

'Junk science' is the issue that we started with and no doubt it is the Liberals' point here in the Senate when they dispute the benefits of marine protected areas. It is probably the underlying reason they want the ability for parliament to disallow the science behind marine protected areas, because that is essentially what we are doing in here today. We are giving us as senators and as MPs the ability to disallow over 30 years of scientific research on the benefits of marine protected areas.

The economics is slightly different. It is not black and white, and I admit that. Marine protected areas are not a silver bullet solution to providing benefits, because there are costs associated with protecting and conserving parts of the ocean. That is purely from an economic point of view. If there is displaced fishing effort, then that fishing effort should potentially be compensated, and that is certainly something that has been dealt with in the bioregional plans, though no doubt they will dispute that and say that not enough compensation is being paid.

But we do not just look at costs in terms of financial or economic costs. We have a duty to look at a much larger array of costs when we look at our environment and the importance that it plays in our daily lives. We need to look at social costs and of course those costs need to be assessed in relation to impacts on communities, and we can look at cultural aspects there as well. But we also need to look at environmental costs and ecological costs in areas of overfishing. And, as any first-year economics student should be able to tell you, once you include those extra environmental and social costs into, for example, the price of fish, then that market is suddenly efficient because the price of those goods factors in all the costs.

I would argue that the externalities that we see in areas such as fisheries—and they are just one example—show that markets have often failed to price those costs into the goods that we buy and sell on markets. It is the role of government, in my opinion and certainly the opinion of the Greens and no doubt Labor on this issue, that the government has a very important role to play in making sure that these externalities are priced into markets. The carbon tax is a very good example of that, and the bioregional plans that provide conservation outcomes reduce the risks of increased costs in the future. If we do deplete our fish stocks—and as I mentioned earlier there are numerous examples of that occurring—then the costs in the future to future generations such as the kids in the chamber here today, are going to much larger. We have a role and responsibility to play in putting aside contingency plans to make sure that we have resources for the future.

That is what marine protected areas are designed to do. That is what thousands of research reports into marine protected areas have shown. The science has been going on for a long time and it has been funded all around the world. The science has shown that marine protected areas have positive spillover effects and positive benefits not just for fish stocks or other marine species, which further down the chain predate and feed on other types of fish species, but there are also positive benefits for communities in the area. If we do get recovery particularly into depleted and endangered or threatened species, then we have the ability to access those fisheries resources into the future.

Marine protected areas are not perfect because of that complexity that we see in our marine ecosystems and they are only one of the fisheries management tools. I agree that they are a fisheries management tool as well as a conservation outcome.

Senator Colbeck: It is not a fisheries management tool.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is a fisheries management tool—I will take that interjection. It has to be a fisheries management tool if you believe the science. The science says that fish stocks will recover.

Senator Colbeck: You misrepresent the science.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You will get your chance in 16 seconds. Do I get 16 seconds back, Mr Acting Deputy President Marshall?