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Sea Change: Tim Winton’s view from the deep

By Max Rheese - posted Monday, 30 April 2012

Accomplished author and Western Australian resident Tim Winton has written a personal and evocative essay, ‘Sea Change’, in Good Weekend magazine on April 14th ‘for all Australians who want a better future for our common underwater heritage’ according to WWF who have posted the article on their website. Winton is a patron of the Australian Marine Conservation Society and undoubtedly loves the sea.

The article, while rich in personal experiences with the sea, is devoid of evidence that would support a case for massive new Marine Protected Areas, which the federal Environment Minister Tony Burke is currently considering and being urged along by Winton. 

By choosing to take a public position on an important environmental issue it is incumbent on Winton (or anybody else) to state their case using evidence if we are to encourage evidence-based environmental policy. The article reflects none of this, but falls back on appealing to emotions and a rose-tinted view of the past. One can only assume this is because the author could not muster enough facts to support his case.


The current marine protection juggernaut for Australian waters driven by international green group The Pew Foundation seeks to convince Tony Burke that a million square kilometres of the Coral Sea adjoining the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park should be reserved as a 'no-take' sanctuary, banning all fishing, to protect ‘fragile’ marine species and ecosystems. Australian waters already account for a quarter of global marine protected areas with these proposals set to take that to about half of the total global protected area. Half, by one country.

It is difficult to decipher what the actual threats are to this ‘pristine marine environment’, to use green group’s description of the Coral Sea.

Climate change and ocean acidification, even if demonstrated as a threat will not be mitigated by a marine park. Nor will a marine park in Australian waters mitigate over-exploitation of Asian fisheries to satisfy Australian consumers because of fisheries regulation and restriction that has strangled the life from our once thriving fishing industry – another example of Western consumers transferring their environmental impact to somewhere else.

Exploitive fishing by other countries in Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), which extends to 200km offshore, is already banned. Harvesting by Australian commercial and recreational fishermen is already strictly controlled with a harvest rate that is amongst the lowest of any maritime nation, even though we have the third largest EEZ in the world.

Despite the fact that well managed reefs can sustain an average harvest of 15,000Kg/Km2/yr, the average harvest rate for the Great Barrier Reef is 9 Kg/Km2/yr. This is much more than 1000 times below the recognised sustainable harvest.

The imagined threats to this ‘pristine marine environment’ that will only supposedly be curtailed by the imposition of a ‘no-take’ zone surely cannot encompass marine species, as none are threatened with extinction by commercial fishing in Australian waters. No loss of marine biodiversity from fishing has been documented in Australia.  Declaring large marine parks with no-take zones will change none of this except banning the existing meagre harvest.


If the underwater marine landscape, marine species in general and fish in particular, will in reality not be afforded any improvement in ‘protection’ as they are already in pristine condition? What is the yet to be demonstrated justification for large new protected areas?

A hallmark of environmental campaigners seeking to impose their values on society to ward off some imagined future threat is a scant evidential foundation for the claims made, which is overshadowed by appeals to people’s emotions.

Winton writes “It’s no longer controversial to say the world’s oceans are in peril; it’s been the consensus view amongst scientists for a long time. Many great fisheries have collapsed. Ninety percent of the biggest pelagic fishes are gone. Coral reefs are in strife. Land-clearing and rapid coastal development have put insupportable pressures on many marine ecosystems.”

None of this applicable to the Coral Sea. Declaring a marine park in the Coral Sea will not prevent adverse impacts happening elsewhere in the globe. Far better to campaign where the real impacts are being felt.

Winton confuses local scarcity with abundance in general: “In the 90s I got used to diving longer and deeper to find abalone where, not long before, getting my quota had been easy work. Prize species of fish became locally scarce, and all around me boats got bigger as recreational fishers ventured further and further out to sea to catch a feed. You didn’t need to be any sort of boffin to know something was wrong; every time you donned a mask and fins the evidence was right in front of your face: there it was - more and more of less.”

It is hardly surprising that popular coastal fishing spots with many decades of locally intense fishing will have less abundance than previously, this however does not equate to a national paucity of fish stocks. Australian commercial fisherman can fill their annual quotas in just several trips per year with one of the best harvesting rates per unit of effort in the world. The data supporting this assertion dramatically undermines the furphy of low productivity Australian waters promulgated by green group campaigns.

“There will however be commercial casualties in this process and it’s vital that affected fishing operators are bought out on just terms with dignity.” This seemingly benign and well-meaning statement glosses over fundamental environmental and economic realities.  The same statement has been used to close off most of the native forestry industry, another vital primary industry strangled by ‘green tape’.

Australian forestry management is recognised as world’s best practice and supplies products society demands, but has been over the last four decades incrementally denied access to over 90% of Australian forests and cannot supply domestic demand.

Australian consumers ‘plunder’ the exploited fisheries that Winton alludes to as the Australian fishing industry cannot provide a meaningful catch because of the restrictions that Winton urges Tony Burke to impose. The same is already occurring with timber; despite one of the world’s largest and best managed forest resources we have a $2.3 billion deficit per annum in timber products and increase the pressure on clear-felling of Asian rainforests to meet our needs.

Australian government fisheries managers state they implement the ‘best’ fisheries management in the world, again for a resource that society demands. Yet Winton and others say we should use taxpayer funds to close these activities, extinguish jobs in regional areas and then impose extra environmental demands for these natural resources on overseas jurisdictions that do not require the environmental standards demanded in Australia. This argument cannot be supported environmentally, economically or on a moral basis.

Winton’s love for the sea and the desire to protect it is admirable, but his efforts would be even more admirable if they were evidential. Furthermore, his efforts would produce the environmental outcome he seeks with a more holistic view.

Global marine protection needs to be holistic by the very nature of global oceans and many migratory species.

Winton should advocate for increased harvesting of Australian seafood, within sustainable limits, that is currently conducted under strict conditions to protect the global marine environment.  To ignore Australian consumers increasing impact on overseas fisheries while campaigning for vast increases in Australian marine protected areas is environmentally counter-productive.

Australia’s $1.7 billion seafood import bill is a result of incremental application of ‘green tape’ from previous environmental campaigns and restriction on the commercial fishing industry over the last four decades with continued decline in harvest. All of our imports come from fisheries with minimal or non-existent protection, much more heavily exploited than Australia’s. Also, the CSIRO forecasts our seafood consumption will increase by 400 per cent in the next 15 years and this can only be met by those exploited fisheries.

Over recent years about 70 per cent of the seafood consumed in Australia is imported. Thailand supplies 25 per cent of our imports from an EEZ that is 5 per cent the size of Australia’s from a wild caught catch that is 11 times greater than the total Australian catch. Australian fishermen annually harvest much less than 1000 tonnes of yellowfin tuna from the Coral Sea while in the adjoining waters PNG licenses Asian fishermen to harvest 750,000 tonnes of which we then import $165 million as canned tuna. We protect our fish for Asian fishermen to catch and sell back to us.

It would be far more environmentally beneficial for Australian fishermen to be allowed to catch the maximum sustainable yield in the Coral Sea and the Pew Foundation to campaign for PNG to reduce their catch to sustainable levels.

Further restrictions on Australian fisheries harvest will only add to the existing environmental impacts that campaigners bemoan.

Seafood harvesting is the most environmentally friendly form of food production with none of the impacts of terrestrial livestock or cropping production.  For this reason alone we should be encouraging sustainable harvesting of seafood from regulated waters and there are none more regulated than Australian marine waters. 

“It’s not a matter of fisheries management; it’s about the preservation of ecosystems.” Surely Winton meant conservation of ecosystems, not preservation? Conservation means embracing the World Conservation Union (IUCN) 'wise-use' of natural resources; preservation means ‘hands off’.  The world’s hungry and poor may not be too keen on a ‘hands off’ policy with regards to a protein rich renewable natural resource with low environmental impact, particularly when that ‘hands off’[no-take] policy places greater pressure on their own food supply.

Is this nit-picking on Winton’s words? Did he write what he meant? He is after all a professional wordsmith, so one assumes he chose his words carefully.  

This is the problem with advocating for environmental protection, someone might believe what you meant or you thought you meant. Apart from that, it is all about fisheries management.

Australian commercial fishing has nearly been managed into extinction despite one of the largest and most productive fisheries in the world. The number of fishing boats operating out of Cairns alone has dropped from over 500 in the 1970’s to a few dozen.

Winton’s view is single dimensional. He fails to mention the need to manage sustainably to feed a growing global population, fails to mention any food not produced by fishing must come from the land and come with a greater environmental impact, and fails to mention the environmental effect Australian consumers have on overseas fisheries.

Every resource we lock up puts more pressure on others and makes balance more difficult. An unnecessary restriction in one place becomes an increased impact somewhere else. This is the consequence of what he and others are advocating by seeking further unwarranted regulation on the most regulated fishery in the world.

It is a parochial view that ignores the impacts on the global marine environment and the pressing need to produce food more efficiently with less environmental impact.

Instead of adopting the no compromise position of imposing a ‘no-take’ zone over a million square kilometres of ocean, thereby denying forever Australian and world access to a renewable food source, we could consider the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation’s vision for fisheries utilisation “A world in which responsible and sustainable use of fisheries and aquaculture resources makes an appreciable contribution to human well-being, food security and poverty alleviation.”

We do after all have the most regulated fisheries in the world; it should not be beyond the wit of the Australian Fisheries Management Authority to manage it sustainably without it being locked up.

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About the Author

Max Rheese is the Executive Director of the Australian Environment Foundation.

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