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Canada has much to learn from Australia when it comes to protecting our oceans


As world leaders gather this week in Rio for the UN conference on Sustainable Development, many will come to promote their work at home to meet international commitments, including those related to protection of the oceans, one of the priority issues at Rio +20.

Canada has much to learn from Australia. In fact, it will be difficult for any country in the world to beat the Australians. Just last week, Australia made an unprecedented announcement – in one fell swoop they created a national, representative network of 44 marine protected areas (MPAs) in Commonwealth (federal) waters. The new MPAs cover a whopping 3.1 million square kilometres, about one third of Australia’s ocean territory.

In Canada, we still lag along with less than 1% of our oceans permanently protected.

Australia’s new Coral Sea marine park when combined with the adjacent Great Barrier Reef marine park, together make the largest MPA in the world at 1.3 million square kilometres. About half of the new Coral Sea is a marine sanctuary and totally closed to fishing and oil and gas development, protecting dozens of endangered species like green turtles, and is one of the last places on the planet where large predatory fish like sharks and tuna populations are thriving.

The ocean off the arid Australian continent is rich in marine life that is found nowhere else in the world. From the world-renowned coral reefs in the northeast, to the southwest region where 90% of the species found are unique in the world, including fish, seabirds, dolphins and whales, to the seadragons and southern right and humpback whales off the south coast…Australians have an ocean of life to take care of!

Australia has set a world leading standard that we in Canada can only dream of. But this wasn’t accomplished overnight – it was a process that was 10 years in the making. But unlike Canada, where we have spent 20 years establishing a series of individual MPAs that, at a stretch, protect 1% of our marine ecosystems, Australia put in place a bioregional planning process that has withstood changes in government and many Environment Ministers, to the world leading results announced last week.

Not only does the Australian MPA network now encircle the continent and protect 40% of the ocean, with examples of most marine habitats, over 9% of the areas declared last week are totally closed to fishing and industrial uses, as are 4% of the existing MPAs. Comparing this with Canada, only .001% of our marine environment is totally closed to all fishing and other industrial uses.

The Australians have also put their money where their mouth is by allocating $100 million to compensate fishermen who will be excluded from some of the areas. This of course has not prevented howls from the fishing industry over the marine park plan. And the official opposition in Australia is also on record opposing the marine park plan.

Is it a perfect plan? No. Lots of key areas still remain vulnerable to fishing and oil and gas development. In fact, some here have claimed that the oil and gas industry had too much influence on the network, particularly in the northwest area.  Here the pristine Ningaloo Reef has no protection, despite plans to build a huge gas hub nearby, and the new marine park at Rowley Shoals off the Kimberley coast allows oil and gas to continue. Another key area that still needs protection is off Kangaroo Island here in South Australia, which is a critical area for endangered blue whales, but is also threatened by oil and gas development.  And off the southeast coast, the Eastern Norfolk Seamounts were left out of the network altogether, and the continental shelf remains open to fishing and mining, despite being the home to the highest biodiversity.

The conservation community in Australia is vowing to continue their work to ensure that these and other areas are protected in the future. They have been doing great work so far in promoting areas for protection based on the best available science. There is now a 90-day final comment period before the government gives these areas final protection. We’ll see what can still be accomplished!

In the meantime, while I’m here in Australia, I hope to learn how we can boost Canada’s marine protected area network. We sure have our work cut out for us if we want to catch up with Australia!

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To support CPAWS' oceans work, sign on to our Dare to be Deep campaign and add your voice for 12 new MPAs in Canada by the end of 2012! Visit www.daretobedeep.ca