Australia’s Marine Protected Areas: Integrating marine mammal conservation into a comprehensive, adequate and representative system

Donna Petrachenko represents the Marine Division, Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, and is the Australian Commissioner to the International Whaling Commission.

Good morning. On behalf of the Australian Government I would like to thank the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service Office of International Affairs and Hawaiin Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary for their initiative in co-hosting this First International Marine Mammal Protected Areas Conference. It comes at a particularly important time for the conservation of marine mammals globally.

As you may already be aware, Australia was the site of the world’s first, although short-lived, whale sanctuary at Norwegian Bay in Western Australia. This area is currently part of the Ningaloo Marine Park. The whale sanctuary was established in 1913 to protect what were considered to be important calving grounds for humpback whales. This sanctuary was characteristic of Australia’s early marine protected areas in that it focused on the protection of iconic habitats or species rather than taking an ecosystem-based approach to conservation and management.

The conservation of marine biodiversity and the maintenance of ecological processes are now recognised, nationally and internationally, as being best achieved through strategic regional planning that provides for the establishment and effective management of a representative system of marine protected areas and the complementary sustainable management of adjoining waters. These protected areas provide the opportunity to protect species and communities in an integrated way.

Networks of marine protected areas protect the environment at regional scales in the same way that individual marine protected areas protect the environment at local scales. Networks are more resilient to human pressures than isolated, individual marine protected areas.

While the concept of marine protected areas has a long history, fishing closures to protect sensitive habitats were first discussed in the fourteenth century, the need to manage and protect marine environments and their resources only really gained momentum in the 1950s. It wasn’t until 1987 that the International Union for Conservation of Nature, at the Fourth World Wilderness Congress, passed a resolution establishing a policy framework for marine conservation. Since that time there has been a rapid increase in the number of marine protected areas worldwide.

Marine protected areas were first declared in Australia nearly a century ago, although prior to the declaration of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park in 1975 only small areas had been protected. This long history of marine protected areas is reflected in the significant support for marine protected areas amongst Australia’s public with more than 94% of Australians believing that marine protected areas play an important role in preserving the marine environment and 88% of the population wanting to see more marine protected areas. Currently Australia has several of the world’s largest marine protected areas, including the Macquarie Island Marine Park, Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Great Australian Bight Marine Park, each covering millions of hectares.

Australians have a strong connection to the ocean with more than eighty-five percent of Australia’s population living less than fifty kilometres from the sea. Surveys show that more than ninety percent of Australians are deeply concerned about the health of the marine environment. Australia also has a special responsibility for the conservation and management of its marine environment as a developed nation with a marine jurisdiction which, at fourteen million square kilometres and extending from the tropics to sub-Antarctica, is more than twice the size of the continent itself.

Australia’s support for marine mammal conservation is well known with a position based on science, economics and ethics. There have been specific legislative instruments to protect cetaceans in Australia since 1980. Australian waters have been designated the Australian Whale Sanctuary and the Australian Government has committed to work with all jurisdictions, local communities and marine scientists to identify coastal havens for whales and dolphins with a view to establishing a national network of whale and dolphin sanctuaries. This Government initiative provides an opportunity to link the efforts of all Australian governments and local communities to achieve positive conservation outcomes for cetaceans, improve our knowledge of local whale and dolphin populations, nurture sustainable industries around whale?watching and enhance strategic coordination of regional cetacean research and information management and sharing arrangements. The Australian Government has begun working with state governments to develop an approach that will build on existing knowledge and conservation measures and meet the interests of all involved. In addition, as I will discuss later, we are finalising our National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas which will provide additional benefits to marine mammals.

Australia’s marine environment contains some of world’s most diverse marine communities with more than four thousand species of fish and tens of thousands of species of invertebrates, plants and micro-organisms. Only about twenty percent per cent of Australia’s seafloor has been physically mapped and far less has been studied in any biological detail. Despite this, we know that Australia’s oceans contain the world’s largest areas and highest species diversity of tropical and temperate seagrasses, some of the largest areas of coral reefs and the highest diversity of mangrove species. It is estimated that around eighty percent of our temperate marine species occur nowhere else in the world. From the spectacular coral reefs of Australia’s tropical north to the majestic kelp forests and sea mounts of the temperate south, the number of newly discovered species and entire ecological communities in Australia’s marine environment increases significantly with each survey. On average forty percent of species from each survey in Australian waters is new to science.

Australia is not alone in this regard. Despite more than two hundred years of exploration we still know relatively little about the world’s oceans. It is perhaps not surprising that new species and communities are routinely found in the ocean depths. However, it is perhaps more surprising that a number of whales are only known from one or two stranded specimens. Setting aside representative, protected areas in the marine environment is an important precaution in the face of this uncertainty and provides a critical tool to build the resilience of marine ecosystems. Individual protected areas are also highly effective where there is a need to manage multiple, ongoing pressures on the ecology of a defined area. When the establishment of protected areas is coordinated to form a network, it ensures the maintenance of ecosystems across many levels: locally, regionally and globally which is particularly important for highly migratory species such as marine mammals.

From a global perspective, the world, it seems, will fall well short of achieving the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development target of establishing “a representative global network of marine protected areas by 2012” and the 2006 Convention on Biological Diversity target of at least 10% of each of the world ecological regions effectively conserved according to the assessment by Wood and others in 2008 of progress towards. Although recently there have been announcements of new, large marine protected areas including then President Bush’s announcement in January 2009 of three new marine monuments in the Pacific Ocean representing an area of more than five hundred thousand square kilometres.

Currently only about 0.65% of the world’s oceans and 1.6% of the total marine area within EEZs is protected and only 0.08% of the world’s oceans and 0.2% of the total marine areas under national jurisdiction are no take. Additionally, about 60% of the world’s oceans are in areas beyond national jurisdiction and largely unregulated. With no established mechanisms to institute marine protected areas in areas beyond national jurisdiction other than fishery closures, Particularly Sensitive Seas under the International Maritime Organisation or through the International Sea Bed Authority there are numerous challenges ahead in achieving effective protection of marine biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. There is a significant need for international cooperation and coordination to make any progress on the protection of critical marine biodiversity, including marine mammals, in these areas.

Australia, along with other nations, participates in a range of international fora on the protection and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in areas beyond national jurisdiction. These include the UN General Assembly and the UN Ad Hoc Open Ended Informal Working Group which was established in 2004 to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction; as well as through intergovernmental organisations such as the Convention on Biological Diversity which contributes technical and scientific expertise to the consideration of those issues.

In 2008 the ninth Conference of the Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted:

· scientific criteria for the identification of ecologically or biologically significant marine areas in need of protection and

· scientific guidance for selecting areas to establish representative networks of marine protected areas, including in open ocean waters and deep-sea habitats; and

· Initial steps to be considered in the development of representative networks of marine protected areas.

Importantly the scientific criteria and guidance make explicit the role of marine protected areas and marine protected area networks in the conservation of migratory marine species in terms their life history stages, conservation status and vulnerability and resilience. This decision will inform the deliberations of the Ad Hoc Informal Open Ended Working Group at its next meeting in 2010. It is, however, recognised that protected areas are not a panacea for conservation of biodiversity and, specifically, marine mammals.

Another important forum internationally is the International Whaling Commission, which is the international organisation for the management of cetaceans as recognised by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. At the Commission’s Annual Meeting in June 2008, in Chile, Australia presented two practical reform proposals to bring the Commission into the twenty-first century, as an organisation equipped to achieve whale conservation through international cooperation.

Australia proposed the development of internationally agreed conservation management plans to improve the protection of whale species and populations. These plans will address the full range of threats to whales, such as the impacts of climate change, ship strikes, pollution and by-catch in fisheries.

But in order to make better cetacean management decisions, we also need to better understand them. In recognition of this, Australia also proposed the establishment of non?lethal whale research partnerships – starting with the Southern Ocean.

Last week in Sydney, Australia, the Southern Ocean Research Partnership commenced with its inaugural planning workshop, with many of the world’s leaders in cetacean conservation science in attendance. This collaborative model promises to provide a transparent mechanism with which to answer priority research questions, reduce key uncertainties and close knowledge gaps, thus improving conservation outcomes for cetaceans across the globe.

On Wednesday of this week I will have the pleasure of hosting a reception to update you all on the progress of the Southern Ocean Research Partnership. You are all welcome to attend.

Though there are a number of areas within the Commission that Australia believes should be reformed, the establishment of large sanctuary areas, such as the Southern Ocean and Indian Ocean Sanctuaries, can be considered a success. Notwithstanding the increasing levels of scientific whaling occurring in the Southern Ocean Sanctuary, these protected areas have allowed many of the most decimated species of large whales to begin the long recovery process back towards their pre-whaling numbers. The effort that led to the establishment of sanctuaries within the Commission is the type of work that Australia believes should be an integral component of the remit of this organisation.

While we need to emphasise global initiatives, regional efforts are important as well. In the Asia Pacific region (other speakers from the Region will be presenting on this topic over the next few days) Australia has been supporting the region’s efforts to improve the conservation of marine mammals as a signatory to the Convention on Migratory Species and Wild Animals Memorandum of Understanding on Cetacean and their Habitats in the Pacific Region and a member of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme which endorsed the Pacific Islands Marine Species Programme 2008-2010. The new Coral Triangle Initiative on Coral Reefs, Fisheries and Food Security also provides an opportunity for Australia to share expertise and build capacity in marine mammal conservation within neighbouring countries.

One of the important aspects of this conference is to assess what practical measures within current regimes can be developed to accelerate the establishment of representative networks of marine protected areas within and beyond national jurisdiction, regionally and domestically. These might include improving the use of existing tools for assessing human impacts on marine biodiversity, fostering bioregional planning approaches and improved coordination and consistency of measures across various international fora and bodies.

Domestically, Australia is committed to the establishment of a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas by 2012. The primary goal of the National Representative System is to establish and manage a comprehensive, adequate and representative system of marine protected areas to contribute to the long-term ecological viability of marine and estuarine systems, maintain ecological processes and systems and protect Australia’s biological diversity at all levels.

Coastal Regionalisation of Australia. This is a spatial framework for classifying Australia’s marine environment into bioregions that make sense ecologically and are at a scale useful for regional planning.

The Marine and Coastal Regionalisation provides a picture of the spatial distribution of the broad scale physical and biological components of Australia’s marine jurisdiction based on biological and physical characteristics.

For example, the South West Marine Region comprises the waters from the eastern end of Kangaroo Island, South Australia, to waters off Shark Bay, Western Australia. It covers more than one million square kilometres and includes both subtropical and temperate waters. The marine bioregionalisation identifies seven bioregions in the South West Marine Region.

The Australian Government is currently working to finalise marine bioregional plans for Australia’s five marine regions. The establishment of a network of marine protected areas has already occurred in the South East Marine Region. Marine bioregional plans present a comprehensive ecological profile of the region and identify key conservation values and threatening processes. The plans will set objectives, strategies and actions for biodiversity conservation in the region that will be delivered over the life of the plan.

The plans also include a comprehensive overview of the Australian Government’s current suite of biodiversity conservation powers and initiatives, such as threatened species recovery planning, threat abatement plans, strategic assessments, marine protected area development and fisheries assessments. The plans will operate as a key reference document to guide industry engagement with the government in its administration of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and provide the outcome-based framework for sectoral management to continue pursuing integrated oceans management in a strategic and consistent fashion.

A key outcome of the marine bioregional planning process will be the design of marine protected areas that include comprehensive, adequate and representative examples of the range of marine ecosystems that occur in the marine regions. Additionally, the networks aim to provide protection for species and communities of conservation concern for which threat mitigation can be best achieved through spatial management.

One such species is the Australian Sea Lion, the only endemic pinniped in Australian waters. The Australian Sea Lion is listed as vulnerable under Federal environmental legislation and late last year was upgraded to endangered by the IUCN Red List, due to a lack of recovery and further decline for some colonies. The main threat to the recovery of the species is ongoing interactions with commercial fisheries that combined with the unusual life history characteristics, including the ansynchrous breeding cycle and high site fidelity of females, have slowed recovery.

For this species, the Australian Government is taking an integrated spatial management approach, where the development of spatial closures for fisheries with a high rate of accidental by-catch is undertaken concurrently with the design of representative conservation reserves.

The Australian Government’s approach to the conservation of dugong has a similar spatial focus through the use of fisheries closures focused on Dugong Protection Areas, ‘go slow’ zones to prevent boat strike and dugong habitat conservation initiatives. In addition to these spatial measures the Australian Government is undertaking collaborative ventures with (primarily Indigenous) communities that have responsibilities and interest in dugongs and their habitats.

These are part of Australia’s efforts to improve marine mammal conservation within our jurisdiction. As mentioned earlier, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act provides a high level of protection for cetaceans in Australian waters. Implementation of the cetacean provisions in the Australia’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation has led Australia to develop best practice management strategies in areas such as whale watching, issuing research permits, minimising impacts of seismic exploration and ocean noise and addressing the issue of ship strikes.

A number of marine protected areas in Australian waters have been established to protect marine mammals including protection of important feeding, breeding, migration and resting areas.

Australia is making good progress in the implementation of a National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas. The Australian marine protected areas estate currently covers approximately eighty-eight million hectares in more than two hundred marine protected areas and represents approximately ten percent of Australia’s marine jurisdiction (excluding Antarctic waters). About forty-three percent of Australia’s marine protected areas estate consists of highly protected sanctuary zones (IUCN Category 1a).

Australia is committed to working with others to further the protection of the world’s oceans and all aspects of biodiversity, of which marine mammals hold a particularly special place.

The outcomes of this conference, the first to bring together marine mammals and marine protected areas, is an important step in a process that must be based on science and garner support from the public and governments worldwide. Again we congratulate the organisers and look forward to seeing how we all can work together and contribute to the next steps.

Thank you.