Are seas the new green battlegounds?
The article below was written by a Greenie so he sees a conspiracy where there are only outraged fishermen who resent being locked out of places where they have been accustomed to fish
In case it passed you by in the recent, just cleared, political blizzard, there's been a shift in our domestic environmental battlefronts, to the sea. After decades as an election cutting point, forests were absent on Saturday. Instead the resource versus protection barney moved to Australia's marine domain. This contest has far to go.
In the past year, a politically sharp, well-funded recreational fisheries lobby has emerged for the first time to take on, and beat, scientists and environmentalists.
It snapped up support from both major parties, and by the campaign's climax had put marine protection on the radar of many politicians whose closest previous dealings with a fish were on a plate.
At the extremes of this argument, some fishers reject any blame for overfishing, while animal activists are opposing cruelty to sentient creatures. But the main game focuses on a national set of marine reserves that until now had bipartisan, if tediously slow, support.
Australia's ocean domain is, at 19 million square kilometres, more than twice as large as its landmass. Our seas range from tropical reefs loved by tourists to frigid deeps.
When Liberal environment minister Robert Hill released the National Oceans Policy in 1998, it claimed to make Australia "the first country in the world to deliver a comprehensive national plan to protect and manage the oceans".
The initial template covering south-eastern waters from Bermagui on the New South Wales south coast, around Victoria and Tasmania to South Australia was finalised years late in 2007. About 7 per cent of this two-million-square-kilometre region is closed to fishing.
Along the rest of the coast other "bioregions" are being studied, but so far the grand total of marine protected areas (not necessarily fisheries exclusion zones) is 765,000 square kilometres, including the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
States also set up their own marine protection. In NSW, 34 per cent of waters is in "parks", and 6.7 per cent in no-fishing sanctuaries, according to a 2009 count by the Australian Marine Conservation Society. In Victoria, 9 per cent of coasts is in parks and 5 per cent in sanctuaries.
Sound reasonable? Not to recreational fishers alarmed by the "no take" concept. The first sign that this lobby was mounting a serious effort came last summer, over mako sharks.
A ban on fishing for these internationally depleted fish fulfilled Australia's obligation under the Convention on Migratory Species. It's reversal by Environment Minister Peter Garrett met electoral imperatives.
Evidence that the debate was polarising came when shadow fisheries minister Richard Colbeck began to rail against the influence of "extreme" environment groups, such as the Pew Foundation.
Come the election campaign, the Australian Fishing Trade Association also popped up with a boatload of funding, warning fishing voters their children's right to hold a rod was under threat. "Fishing may never be the same again if the Greens or Labor get into power!" said their full-page advertisements.
AFTA is composed of recreational fishing trade suppliers who claim to be at the heart of a $1 billion industry. Executive director Doug Joyner said they had up to $450,000 to spend on countering the "Green grab" for 30 per cent plus of the seas.
The Greens do indeed argue for 30 per cent of the seas to go into no-take zones, claiming this is the best insurance policy for fishing in a future where over-fished stocks also face threats from climate change.
The Australian Marine Science Association has much lower ambitions, calling for effective protection of at least 10 per cent in no-take zones. Labor rejected arbitrary targets in the campaign, and pointed out that Commonwealth reserves began five kilometres offshore, beyond the reach of the average shore fisher.
But Liberal leader Tony Abbott immediately grasped the political value of a fishing rod, and now wants to shelve all marine reserve plans. Last week in Narooma on the NSW south coast he said: "I think that it's very important that we immediately suspend this marine protected area process. The fact is that it is needlessly threatening not just the livelihoods of people who live off the sea but it's immediately threatening the entire economy of the south coast."
Whether Labor survives in government or the Coalition prevails, clearly the setting has changed. "I fish and I vote" has become more than a car sticker. Expect to see more of the fishers, and their opponents, from now on.