The ABC has obtained an Environment Department proposal for a network of marine parks that would make up the biggest ocean conservation sanctuary in the world.
Environment Minister Tony Burke’s upcoming announcement of a national network of Commonwealth marine parks has been described by environmentalists as a chance for the government to leave a legacy as significant as the protection of the Great Barrier Reef or Kakadu.
The documents show a huge protected area in the Coral Sea off Queensland, stretching all the way along the state’s coastline and a long way out to sea.
There are protected pockets stretching further south past New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and significant protected areas proposed around Western Australia and up to the Northern Territory.
Work on the network of marine parks has being underway for years, and it is expected a final decision on the protection zone could be just a week or two away.
Michele Grady from the Pew Environment Foundation says the proposed changes will be a world first.
“It will be the first time that a nation has put in place the sort of protection that the science world is saying is needed to ensure that marine life is protected into the future,” she said.
“We know from the devastating impacts of fishing and the search for oil and gas globally where oceans are in very deep decline that we have to do it better here.”
But furious commercial fishermen say it will see businesses shut down and Australians paying more for their favourite seafood.
“What we’re talking about here is Australia setting aside up to 50 per cent of the total economic zone to close to significant areas of fishing,” said Brian Jeffriess from the Commonwealth Fisheries Association.
“Now that would mean that Australia would have over 50 per cent of the world’s closed areas. That’s Australia getting along way ahead of the world with no good reason.”
Opposition Environment spokesman Greg Hunt also called for fishing communities to be fully consulted on the plans.
The University of Queensland’s Hugh Possingham – who worked on the software and modelling that helped inform the plan – says the rezoning will be a significant change.
“Much of what we do seems esoteric, but this is the biggest rezoning the world’s ever seen.
“The software that we’ve developed as part of this process will change 10 to 20 per cent of the surface of the entire development.”
There are also questions being asked about whether the Government is unified in its enthusiasm for the marine park network.
While Mr Burke has been drawing up the marine park plans, his Cabinet colleague, Resources Minister Martin Ferguson, has been opening up Commonwealth waters to oil and gas exploration.
Environmentalists say those plans need greater scrutiny, and claim exploration in places like Rowley Shoals off the coast of Broome in WA risk jeopardising the marine park.
“Despite the marine sanctuary process now running for 10 years by way of preparation for these important decisions this year, there’s been absolutely no check on what’s been an increasingly desperate search for oil and gas,” Ms Grady said.
“It would be akin to opening up the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park to oil and gas.”
The reserves are in some cases along way off shore, and will mostly impact commercial fishery operations rather than recreational fishers.
The Commonwealth Fisheries Association’s Brian Jeffriess says that could put some lucrative catches at risk.
“There’s significant areas of rock lobster in the southern areas and in the western areas. There are significant areas of tuna long lining on the east coast of Australia and the south west of Australia. There are significant elements of trawl fishery in Queensland, NSW and WA.
“These are regional communities that are dependent on these fisheries and the prosperity it generates for regional communities.
“Could it have any impact on the consumer who goes down to the fish market looking for their choice cut or their bit of lobster?
“Clearly it will, whatever total adjustment this means in the end is going to be significant and domestic prices will go up.”