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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.”

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About the Author

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

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