Fears for fishing sector as marine park takes shape with ‘no-catch’ zones

Fears for fishing sector as marine park takes shape with ‘no-catch’ zones

Fishers and residents on Western Australia’s south coast say “no-catch” sanctuary zones flagged for a major new marine park could spell the end to commercial fishing in the area. 

Key points:

  • The South Coast Marine Park is due to be established in 2024
  • The WA government says the marine park will rival Ningaloo and the Great Barrier Reef
  • Esperance fishing stakeholders say they are being ignored in the planning process

A copy of the draft zoning scheme, dated March 15 and obtained by the ABC, includes a number of earmarked no-catch “sanctuary zones” within a proposed South Coast Marine Park stretching nearly 1,000 kilometres from Bremer Bay to South Australian border.

The draft zoning scheme is subject to change, and not due to be formally released for public consultation until later this year.

Proponents of the marine park — flagged to take effect in early 2024 — say it will ensure the long-term health of important ecosystems and culturally significant regions.

But fishers believe their input continues to be ignored while the government plans the introduction of “irrational” sanctuary zones.

Concerns for commercial fishing

Addressing the local council, Esperance Professional Fishermen’s Association president David Gray said if the latest draft zoning scheme was implemented as currently outlined, it would lead to “the slow death” of the industry.

He said the sector was already under stress from heavy regulation and labour shortages.

Mr Gray, a second-generation sardine fisher, said he was not opposed to marine parks that were “implemented properly”.

But, in the design of numerous no-catch sanctuary zones, he said the government had not properly considered the concerns and expertise of commercial operators.

A man leans against the side of a ute tray, with sunglasses pushed to the top of his head.

David Gray is a second-generation sardine fisher.(ABC Rural: Hayden Smith)

“Since the latest draft we’ve had more consultation, one-on-one meetings with DBCA and DPIRD — and it seems as though none of that has been taken into account,” Mr Gray told the ABC.

“There’s proposed [sanctuary] zones up and down the coast, from Eucla to Bremer Bay, and they all affect different fisheries.

“There are zones that will affect octopus fishing, zones that will affect shark fishing, zones that will affect abalone — the whole range.”

His back is to the camera, a net full of fish dangles over the side of the boat as he pulls it in.

Esperance fisherman David Gray hauls in a catch of sardines.(Supplied: David Gray)

The state government said it was “committed to providing fair compensation” to commercial fishers affected by the marine park.

But Mr Gray said any compensation scheme was unlikely to make up for lost livelihoods.

“I find it a really difficult situation to talk about compensation because quite often these fishing enterprises … they’re like a small, family-owned, multi-generational fishing operation,” he said.

“If, you know, your children were going to take it over — or even your grandchildren — what’s the ‘value’ of that?”

‘A transparent and open process’

Environment Minister Reece Whitby was in Esperance this week to meet with the 12-person Community Reference Committee.

The ABC requested an interview but was told the minister was unavailable.

In a statement, Mr Whitby said he was confident the DBCA was taking “all feedback into account” in designing the South Coast Marine Park.

A wide shot of WA Environment Minister Reece Whitby speaking in a suit and tie outdoors, in front of microphones.

Reece Whitby says the consultation process is “transparent and open”.(ABC News: James Carmody)

“Information received during this planning process is helping shape the draft proposed zoning scheme,” Mr Whitby said.

“The date for the final Community Reference Committee meeting was extended by a month to allow for further feedback.

“Western Australians will have an opportunity to comment on the draft management plan, which will include a proposed zoning scheme, when it’s released for a three-month public consultation period later this year. The feedback will then be reviewed and considered.

“This is a transparent and open process.

“We’re committed to working with commercial and recreational fishers to strike the right balance that will be accepted by the broader community.”

The ABC also reached out to Fisheries Minister Don Punch, but was told as the marine park process was being led by DBCA, he was not willing to be interviewed.

Deputy Leader of the WA Opposition and Member for Roe, Peter Rundle, said he did not think the consultation had been good enough so far.

“I’m worried about where the sanctuary zones are going to go, worried about access for our recreational fishers, and also very worried about our professional fishermen as well,” he said.

Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation said its planning team “makes no recommendations for establishing exclusionary zones” within the marine park.

Sanctuary zones provide ‘clean test tube’

University of Western Australia senior lecturer Tim Langlois is part of a science advisory group involved with the marine park’s planning.

He said the sanctuary zones could provide a clearer picture of the marine environment.

Man stands in front of coloured background wall at a university.

Tim Langlois says sanctuary zones provide important data to researchers.(ABC Rural: Hayden Smith)

“What the sanctuary zones give you, from a science point of view, is actually kind of like a clean test tube,” he said.

“[It helps us] to understand how we as humans are interacting with, and changing, the environment.”

He said he understood why Esperance locals were nervous about the idea, but pointed to the Ningaloo Marine Park as a reason to be optimistic.

“Ningaloo went through a marine park planning process in 2004, 2005, and at the time there was really strong concerns in the community about the impact of the park,” he said.

“Anyone who’s been to Ningaloo recently can see that things are actually co-existing there.”

Recreational fishers will need to adapt

Murray Johnson has adapted to change before, and is prepared to do it again. The Esperance tackle shop owner just wants to know: why should he have to?

“I feel that they [DBCA] are looking at areas they think have scientific benefit — [but] there is no science to back that up to start with,” he said.

Mr Johnson, also a life member of the Esperance Deep Sea Angling Club, was particularly concerned by the sanctuary zones drafted to take effect near Cape Le Grand National Park.

Man in blue shirt stands in tackle shop in front of fishing gear on a wall.

Murray Johnson is concerned about the sanctuary zones proposed for near Cape Le Grand National Park.(ABC Rural: Hayden Smith)

“They’re out from areas that have boat lodging facilities, they’re out from areas that have existing moorings — a lot of things that they’re not taking into account,” he said.

“They just want to get the [sanctuary] zones. If they’re going to do that, why do they have to take zones that impact the economy and impact people’s way of life so much?

“There’s a lot of these zones where it just feels like someone has put a line on a map. Someone in Perth has gone, ‘That’s what we want’.”

* Draft maps created by DBCA and Australian Hydrographic office

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