Senate debates

Monday, 15 March 2010


Coral Sea Conservation Zone Declaration

10:19 pm

Photo of Brett MasonBrett Mason (Queensland, Liberal Party, Shadow Parliamentary Secretary for Education and School Curriculum Standards) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to speak tonight about the Coral Sea Conservation Zone declaration that was made in May 2009 by the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and the Arts. As the Senate would know, in November 2009 the opposition voted in favour of a motion to disallow that declaration, and I am sorry to say that that motion was not carried by the Senate. It is a great shame for many Queenslanders along the central and northern coast of my home state.

The Coral Sea Conservation Zone stretches from Cape York to Bundaberg in south-east Queensland and covers approximately one million square kilometres. The western boundary of the Coral Sea Heritage Park is the eastern boundary of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. There is much concern about this declaration throughout the affected areas of Queensland. In particular, the declaration was made after farcically inadequate consultation, when the government had only spoken with the Australian Conservation Foundation and Pew Charitable Trusts and had not bothered to talk to the affected communities or industries or indeed Indigenous representatives. Fundamentally, there was no assessment made as to the financial costs to regional communities and stakeholders, particularly the impact the non-transferability of permits will have on local tourist businesses. Lastly, at the time this declaration was made the Coral Sea Conservation Zone was already fully included within the eastern marine bioregional planning process that runs from Cape York all the way down to Batemans Bay in southern New South Wales. That process is being used to determine the level of protection required for Australia’s eastern coast and includes a significant public and scientific consultation process. In other words, this is the proper, comprehensive, fair and scientific process to determine the level of environmental protection that the Coral Sea needs, not the declaration process which the minister seems to have used as a convenient shortcut to ride roughshod over all the affected parties.

The Coral Sea is a very low-volume, high-value fishery, with $10 million worth of fish stock taken in 2006. A number of charter boats work the area and the game fishing industry is a catch-and-release industry. The area is in pristine condition, and has been since time immemorial. There is no evidence that any activity currently carried out in the area threatens this state of affairs. I am concerned that, as was highlighted during a debate last year, there was no public consultation in relation to this declaration. This astonishing fact was confirmed by Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts officials during the estimates process. However, it has also been confirmed that two organisations did have the ear of the minister in this decision: the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Australian Conservation Foundation. It hardly represents procedural fairness and a proper democratic process when special interest groups can influence the government to the exclusion of all the others. This is also not a fair representation of the stakeholders affected by this decision. In fact, consulting just these two groups to the exclusion of anyone else affected by or interested in the minister’s ultimate decision makes a mockery of the entire process.

I would like to highlight the fact that no assessment was made of the financial cost of this declaration to business, tourism operators, regional communities and other stakeholders. In particular, there is still great uncertainty for charter operators currently operating in the Coral Sea Conservation Zone. While permits may be issued under the existing regulations, clause 2 of the regulations prohibits the sale or transfer of those permits. The fact that the permits are not transferable is having an effect on the value of charter boat businesses and is creating great uncertainty within the industry. The assignment of property rights, at an appropriate price, is a proper way, and an environmentally and financially responsible way, of monitoring access to the Coral Sea fisheries.

Contrast the Coral Sea declaration process undertaken by the minister—if you can call it a process—with the East Marine Bioregional Plan process, which has been underway since early 2009 and which has included a six-month extension of its consultation period. The process in this instance includes consultation with stakeholders on specific issues and activities. It also includes workshops and public meetings to provide updates on progress and to discuss and seek feedback on planning approaches. In addition to these workshops, targeted consultation will be undertaken on specific aspects of the planning process. A further public consultation period of at least 60 days will occur on the release of each draft marine bioregional plan. This seems like a much more thorough process of consultation and analysis. Furthermore, it is much fairer and more open to the locals. One has to ask why it was necessary for the government to make this declaration and create so much uncertainty for key stakeholders when this other comprehensive process was already underway.

But there are more problems with the declaration process than just the lack of public consultation. It certainly raises some questions when some of the so-called scientific evidence that the government refers to as the basis for its decision was also partly funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, one of the two organisations that were consulted in the making of this declaration. It has since come to light in correspondence with the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts that the decision to make the declaration relies on only three studies. It is notable that Pew Charitable Trusts contributed to the funding of one of these studies.

Remarkably, the journals that this same study was published in, Science and Nature, have been criticised by a leading fishery scientist, Professor Ray Hilborn, Professor of Fisheries Management at the School of Aquatic and Fisheries Sciences at the University of Washington. Professor Hilborn commented:

Two journals with the highest profile, Science and Nature, clearly publish articles on fisheries not for their scientific merit, but for their publicity value.

Professor Hilborn also commented:

Critical peer review has been replaced by faith-based support for ideas and too many scientists have become advocates. An advocate knows the answer and looks for evidence to support it; a scientist asks nature how much support there is for competing hypotheses.

It is this last comment by Professor Hilborn that is really the crux of the matter. It is very concerning that the government makes declarations such as this on advice from special interest groups but without consultation with those directly affected by the decision. It is even more worrying when it is done in the absence of any assessment of the financial cost to business or, indeed, of any robust scientific analysis.

I have great hope that when the East Marine Bioregional Plan process concludes the results will clearly demonstrate the flaws in the minister’s rushed and flawed decision to issue a declaration. It will only be at the conclusion of the eastern bioregional planning process, sometime this year, when there has been sufficient public consultation and scientifically sound analysis of the situation, that informed decisions can truly be made about the level of protection required in the beautiful marine resource that is the Coral Sea. Until then, the residents of the central and north coasts of Queensland, affected by a reckless and premature decision by the minister, can only hope that good sense and fairness will prevail in the end.