The fight over marine life: to preserve or to fish


Matt Tworkowski

Fur seals are among the species in the protected sanctuaries of Batemans Marine Park.

Conservation groups on the NSW south coast fear for the future of marine species because of the state government’s decision to allow recreational fishing in what was a protected part of the Batemans Marine Park.

In 2007, the NSW Government created a zoning plan for the newly established Batemans Marine Park with three distinct zones. ‘General use’ was where all recreational fishing was allowed, ‘habitat protection’ allowed only certain species to be caught, and ‘sanctuary’ prohibited everyone from taking or interfering with any marine life.

The sanctuary zones were created to protect species of fish, stingrays, fur seals, sharks, penguins, sea birds and many more.

Then, in December 2019, Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall and Transport and Roads Minister, Andrew Constance announced that five of the Batemans Marine Park’s sanctuary zones would be opened up to recreational fishing.

The change angered the Nature Coast Marine Group (NCMG) which has dedicated the past decade to restoring these zones back to their natural state. The group argues the government did not provide any reasoning for the decision, nor did they perform any scientific monitoring or studies.

NCMG spokesman Bill Barker said when a change such as this is written into law, there should be an initial two-month public consultation period. He said that never happened.

“The government very cleverly decided to have the decision first and then sometime in the future have the consultation,” Mr Barker said.

“They got around this by saying, ‘Oh we’re not really changing anything – it’s still theoretically illegal to fish in these areas but we’re just not going to prosecute anybody’. In this way they’ve got around their own legislation.”

The NCMG is not alone in being upset by the decision. Oyster farmer Brian Coxon has lived and worked the majority of his life in the south coast town of Narooma. He was frustrated when he heard the announcement.

“They didn’t even tell the Marine Park Authority or the people who were working there that had put ten years of their time and life into looking after the marine park… they just did it,” Mr Coxon said.

“Why would it matter if we fenced off a bit of area and said, ‘no, don’t catch fish there?’ In the grand scheme of things, is that really going to hurt anybody? I can only see benefit coming from it.”

Not everyone is unhappy with the decision. Recreational fishing groups say the re-opening of the sanctuary zones allows fishermen access to areas they were previously permitted to fish.

Representative of the Eurobodalla Fishing Association, Adam Martin said fishing in the sanctuary zones has a very low impact compared to other factors.

“Water pollution and the different things that enter the water have serious impacts on the marine environment,” he said.

Mr Martin also sits on the advisory committee of the Batemans Marine Park. He argues that recreational fishing is vital.

“We can’t stop extractive activities because humans need to do that. We need food to eat. We need these outdoor activities for mental health.”

Bill Barker from the NCMG argues allowing fishing in the sanctuaries will be disruptive.

“As soon as [they] are open to fishing, the likelihood is that the larger fish are the ones that are going to be taken out of the ecosystem. They are the more valuable ones.

“In reproductive terms, a big fish produces proportionally more eggs and larvae than a smaller fish. If you take them out of the equation it has a serious impact on the overall ecology.”

According to research conducted by the Australian Marine Sciences Association (AMSA), sanctuary zones are proven to have numerous benefits. They protect biodiversity and ecosystem function, assist marine scientists in monitoring and evaluating marine life, protect cultural and spiritual values, and they allow for marine life to flourish and expand undisturbed.

AMSA’s research revealed that sanctuary zones allow fish to multiply and spill into the zones where fishing is allowed. As a result, it says the creation of sanctuaries is beneficial in the long run for recreational fishermen.

Just as importantly, AMSA argues the wellbeing of coastal communities can often depend on having a healthy marine ecosystem.

Montague Island is part of the Batemans Marine Park.                            Photo: Phil Thurston

At the moment, the sanctuary zones make up 19 per cent of the Batemans Marine Park but AMSA argues that at least 30 percent of marine parks, regardless of location, should be protected in sanctuaries.

The prospect of a reduction in sanctuaries angers Bill Barker.

“We have got to the point where we have to take action now otherwise the degrading of the environment is just going to continue on and on and who knows for how long. I think we are justified in being very concerned about what is happening.”

The Department of Primary Industries (DPI) is responsible for marine protected areas in NSW. For this story, a number of questions were put to the department about the decision to allow recreational fishing in sanctuary zones. In particular, it was asked about the scientific basis for the decision in light of the research done by AMSA.

In response, the department shared a link to its website with details about additional recreational fishing in the Batemans Marine Park. The department did not provide any answers to the questions.

The Nature Coast Marine Group says it won’t be letting the issue rest. The group has set-up a campaign website, Save Batemans Sanctuaries, and continues to plan public events to make sure the local community is aware of the issue.

Bill Barker says the next step is to take the evidence – and support – they have gathered back to the ministers to restate the case for greater protection of the park.

“It is a wonderful thing to be in touch with the natural world.

“We are lucky here [on the south coast] that we’ve got forests and ocean around us. It’s good for people’s health and mental welfare to be interacting with the natural world. It gives you such a good feeling.”