Australia sets a good example for ocean conservation and economic development, together

Originally published in The Hill Times, September 9th, 2013

However you look at them, Canada’s oceans are a precious resource. Fishing, boating, and ocean exploration are an integral part of our history and Canadian way of life. Our marine resources also have enormous and tangible economic value. According to the Canadian Government’s own figures, ocean sector industries – including fishing, tourism and offshore energy – contribute more than $28 billion a year to our GDP and support over 300,000 direct and indirect jobs.
But scientists and conservationists have raised serious concerns about the health of the world’s oceans.  Fish stocks are reaching critical levels, with over 85 per cent of the world’s fish stocks fished up to or beyond their limits.  And overfishing is not the only challenge our oceans face – pollution, acidification and habitat destruction all threaten the health of delicate ocean ecosystems.
Despite a series of international commitments the Canadian Government has made to set aside 10 per cent of our ocean by 2020 for marine sanctuaries, slightly over one per cent has been protected so far.  We are lagging behind the global community in protecting key ocean ecosystems – a position that could have far-reaching environmental and economic consequences.
The global leader in smart oceans protection is Australia, which created the world’s largest network of marine sanctuaries, including the renowned Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Australia has set aside, 36 per cent of its oceans under ecologically sustainable management and 13 per cent fully protected as no-take zones.  This effort was developed under the John Howard conservative government and was completed by the current Labor government in 2012. The sanctuary network offers protection for many of the world’s endangered coral species, as well as preserving habitat for hundreds of threatened marine species.

Corals (Corals); Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Queensland, Australia
© Jürgen Freund / WWF-Canon
Lizard Island, aerial view. Great Barrier Reef & Coral Sea, Australia

The Australian marine sanctuary network offers economic benefits as well.  A landmark 2010 study by the Allen Consulting Group showed that far from curtailing industry, the proposed network of marine sanctuaries would bring tangible economic benefits.  The study projected a 20 per cent increase in tourism revenues as well as longer-term benefits such as healthier fish stocks and protection from shocks such as those faced by Australia’s lobster fishery.
Business and community leaders, as well as the general public, rallied to support the proposal for marine sanctuaries.  The Australian government received hundreds of thousands of submissions in support of the proposal, and public opinion research found that more than 60 per cent of Australians were in favour of protecting a third or more of Australia’s oceans.
Australia’s experience in creating the world’s largest marine sanctuary network shows that oceans protection can be done in such a way that it offers both economic and environmental benefits, while receiving broad support from the public and stakeholders.
Canadians know that the failure to manage oceans resources properly can have far-reaching consequence. The 1992 moratorium on the northern cod fishery resulted in the single largest lay-off in Canadian history, with more than 30,000 jobs lost, and had a devastating effect on the communities that relied on the cod fishery. Polls also show Canadians want economic progress and jobs but not at the expense of the environment.
We can avoid a similar ecological and economic disaster in the future, but Canada needs political leadership to protect our oceans habitats and industries.  In recent years the government has made progress, establishing marine parks and protected areas in sensitive regions like Gwaii Hanaas and Bowie Seamount in BC, Tarium Niryutait in the Arctic, Musquash Marine Protected Area off the coast of New Brunswick, and St Anns Bank Area of Interest off the coast of Cape Breton, but we need to accelerate progress to meet our international commitments and ensure that Canada’s oceans are healthy and productive for generations to come.
Andrew Dumbrille manages WWF-Canada’s national oceans governance program in Ottawa. Join WWF, the All Party Ocean Caucus and the Australian High Commission on Monday September 9, for an ‘Oceans on the Hill’ lunch event featuring an Australian expert on ocean management and conservation.