Marine reserves are a benefit to all

A RARELY discussed feature of Australia's national anthem is that while it pays tribute to our land for abounding in nature's gifts, the sea's only apparent attribute is that it girds our home. As federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has correctly observed, generations of Australians have understood the need to preserve ecologically significant areas of land as national parks, but "our oceans contain unique marine life which needs protection too". The Age therefore welcomes the government's ...

ARARELY discussed feature of Australia's national anthem is that while it pays tribute to our land for abounding in nature's gifts, the sea's only apparent attribute is that it girds our home. As federal Environment Minister Tony Burke has correctly observed, generations of Australians have understood the need to preserve ecologically significant areas of land as national parks, but "our oceans contain unique marine life which needs protection too". The Age therefore welcomes the government's decision, made after years of planning and consultation, to establish the world's largest network of marine reserves.

The massive expansion of marine reserves, which will ring the country and cover more than 3 million square kilometres of water, includes waters with significant marine biodiversity, such as the Coral Sea, in which five reefs will now have full national-park-level protection. Pygmy blue whale habitats off the southern coast of Western Australia will also be included in the protected zones. The reserves are an insurance policy for future generations, for while Australia's fisheries are among the world's most sustainable, this fact alone cannot justify complacency. It is also the case that in taking this step Australia advances the cause of ocean protection internationally, because what is done in one country can have a significant impact on marine habitats elsewhere. The government's initiative and leadership can only boost the global effort to better protect marine life.

The network of reserves strikes a responsible balance between competing interests by allowing mining, oil and gas exploration and certain types of commercial fishing to continue in some zones. Indeed, the fact that both conservationists and commercial fishers have expressed dissatisfaction with the plan may be reason enough to judge it sound.

The industry will inevitably absorb some pain, despite the government's $100 million compensation package, but it also stands to reap the long-term benefits of sustainable fish stocks. The results of a recent study by international scientists in the Keppel Island group on the Great Barrier Reef provide strong evidence that marine reserves can help restock exploited fish populations on neighbouring reefs left open to fishing the reserves in this study were found to have generated half the baby fish both inside and outside its boundaries. And scientists working on the Great Barrier Reef have already established that protected fish populations can bounce back rapidly from the impact of years of heavy fishing.