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The Coalition must resolve its internal conflict, accept the science and acknowledge the overwhelming community support for strengthening marine protection, writes Kevin Evans from the NSW National Parks Association.

Sydney’s blue backyard is central to the Harbour City's way of life, reputation and economy — yet less than 1% of its coastal waters are protected. The NSW Coalition Government has dragged the anchor on meaningful marine protection in NSW for six years, ignoring evidence and stalling its own reform process, initiated three premiers ago, in 2010. Key stakeholders fatigued by years of consultation with no substantive progress to show for it, fear there is little true commitment from this government to strengthen marine protection.

Environment groups have just released their mid-term report on the NSW Government’s performance, as measured on eight important areas that were presented to politicians at the 2015 election. The Government performed well in only one category – pollution and waste – thanks largely to its commitment to a container deposit scheme, broadly welcomed and long overdue. So let’s look at their record on another important category, Marine Protection in more detail.

Like all other environmental policy debates within the NSW Coalition caucus, progressive marine policy has hit familiar choppy waters: a Liberal Party unwilling or unable to stand firm on the environment, and a National Party that clutches the tiller and navigates via an entrenched ideology, impervious to evidence and community views. Despite quiet sympathy for stronger environmental protection from many Liberal MPs and overwhelming community support for it, the NSW Government continues to procrastinate on creating more Marine Protected Areas. The rudderless ship of the responsible ministers (National Party Minister for Primary Industries Niall Blair and the three short-term Liberal environment ministers since 2010) is a major reason for this policy failure.

Inaction on marine protection will now make the job harder and more expensive in the long term. For example, Sydney’s coast, referred to as the Hawkesbury Shelf marine bioregion has a unique mix of warm tropical waters from the north and colder southern currents, meaning our waters are home to an enormous range of marine plants and animals. Yet our incredible marine life is feeling the pressure on a number of fronts. A busy harbour, marine pollution, population growth and over-fishing are just a few of the complex challenges. An appropriately designed and funded marine park in this region would build resilience and protection by addressing these challenges through improved planning, funding, communication and adaptive management.

Just like our other NSW marine parks, a Sydney marine park would be managed for a mix of uses, including recreational fishing and a network of marine sanctuaries. Well managed marine parks show how conservation, tourism and fishing can work hand in hand, and are good for our environment and regional economies. A marine park in the heart of Australia’s largest city would be a compelling marketing advantage for the tourism industry and another jewel in Sydney’s crown, to go with icons like the Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

Marine protected areas, which include sanctuary (no-take) zones, are recognised around the world as one of the best management responses that we have to tackle the challenge of marrying conservation and recreation. These strategies work. Fishing, conservation and marine tourism go hand-in-hand in the established marine parks at Cape Byron, the Solitary Islands, Port Stephens - Great Lakes, Jervis Bay, Batemans Bay and out at Lord Howe Island. Studies show that the great majority of local recreational fishers in NSW’s marine parks support these parks, including their sanctuary zones. Most instinctively know what the science tells us: that sanctuary zones mean bigger fish and more of them. Many thousands of Sydney anglers visit these locations every year for their excellent fishing and many thousands also enjoy snorkelling and scuba diving. Wouldn’t it be great to have similarly well-managed waters all year round in Sydney?

Looking at the bigger picture, Australia has committed to establishing a representative system of marine reserves as part of our international obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP 1994). This requires representation of all key habitats in near-shore (state) and offshore (Commonwealth) waters in order to be truly representative.

Whilst previous NSW governments have made some progress in the establishment of marine reserves, the current system of reserves falls far short of our international obligations and is insufficient to conserve biodiversity. NSW has six marine parks and 12 aquatic reserves, with the total sanctuary area in these reserves less than 7% of state waters. Two bioregions in NSW – the Hawkesbury Shelf (Sydney) and Twofold Shelf – have no large marine park to protect their unique range of habitats and marine communities.

The Australian Marine Science Association Position Statement on Marine Protected Areas states that

'... a figure of 10% under 'no-take' protection would slow but not prevent loss of biodiversity. The current no-take level in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park of 33% is more likely to achieve substantial and sustained biodiversity conservation benefits.'

This is in agreement with the 2016 target set by the International Union for Conservation of Nature of 30% of the world's oceans under high levels of protection by 2030.

The Coalition Government must resolve its internal conflict, accept the scientific evidence and acknowledge the overwhelming community support there is for strengthening marine protection. With this rare social licence, the NSW Government must chart a new course to protect more of our marine heritage.

Kevin Evans is the CEO of the National Parks Association of NSW.

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