Save Our Marine Life
Save Our Marine Life

Frequently Asked Questions

Find out all about us, our objectives, how marine sanctuaries work, the science behind them and the effects they will have.

What is Save Our Marine Life?

Save Our Marine Life is an unprecedented collaboration of eleven State, National and international conservation organisations working to protect, restore and enhance Australia’s marine life through establishing a network of marine sanctuaries.

The member groups are The Conservation Council of WA, The Australian Marine Conservation
Society, The Wilderness Society, The Conservation Council of South Australia, The Pew Environment Group, WWF Australia, Humane Society International, Project AWARE Foundation, The Australian Conservation Foundation, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society and The Nature Conservancy.

The campaign is also supported by tourism, dive, fishing charter and other businesses as well as Local Government, fishing clubs, research organisations and chambers of commerce & industry. Our registered and active supporters number more than 37,000.

What does Save Our Marine Life aim to achieve?

Australia is currently planning a national marine parks network. The first region to be decided on will be the South West region, running from Kangaroo Island in South Australia, to Kalbarri in Western Australia (in yellow below). The decision affects Commonwealth waters only (5.5 km from the coast or islands out to the edge of Australia’s Exclusive Economic Zone at 370 km from the coast). The other marine regions the Federal Government will be considering for protection are the North West, the North and the East.

There is no guarantee that these marine parks will protect marine life. Marine parks usually allow a range of activities from trawling and mining to oil drilling. Fully protected marine sanctuaries (or sanctuary zones) within marine parks, which have the same standard of protection as National Parks on land, are essential.

Save Our Marine Life is campaigning for a network of large marine sanctuaries throughout the South West region to ensure marine life can recover, and is protected for future generations. Such a network would have protected areas similar to the networks of marine sanctuaries at Ningaloo Reef, or the Great Barrier Reef.

Why is the South-West so important and what is the opportunity?

Australia’s South West Marine Region, a massive area at 1.4mkm2 stretching from Kangaroo Island in SA around to Kalbarri in WA is considered by scientists to be globally significant for biodiversity. Up to 90% of the marine life there is found nowhere else in the world. It also provides habitat critical to the survival of endangered marine life including blue whales, turtles, seabirds, seals and fish. However, less than 1% of the marine environment of this Region is protected.

For more information view our online Atlantis Found flip-book.

For a full description of the values of the South West download our foundation publication Save Our Marine Life report.

The Federal Government’s marine planning process is a major once-off opportunity to protect Australia’s oceans and marine life, delivering a significant on-ground conservation outcome and legacy for the future Australians. In doing so Australia will once again become an international leader on marine protection.

What are marine sanctuaries?

Marine sanctuaries are areas of our marine waters set aside for conservation. They are open for activities such as surfing or diving or swimming, and similar to National Parks on land, the plants and animals inside sanctuaries are protected.

Sanctuaries are usually zoned as part of a larger multiple-use marine park and they are selected to protect either critical feeding or breeding sites, unusual sub-sea features or examples of different habitat types. Extractive activities such as mining and fishing are permitted in a marine park but are not in a marine sanctuary. Scientific research shows that marine parks do not produce the dramatic benefits derived from marine sanctuaries.

While scientific research also shows that marine sanctuaries can help increase the abundance and resilience of fish stocks, overwhelmingly their primary purpose is to act as an essential tool in protecting our marine biodiversity and managing ecosystems.

What is the science behind the calls for marine sanctuaries?

There is a national and international science consensus that high levels of marine sanctuary protection will protect marine life. Marine sanctuaries are supported by Australia’s leading marine science organisations, including the Australian peak body for marine scientists, the Australian Marine Science Association. You can read the AMSA position statement on Marine Sanctuaries.

Additionally in August 2011, 221 respected scientists, including some of the world’s most renowned marine and fisheries scientists, published a ‘statement of concern’, calling on the Federal Government to dramatically improve the science behind their proposed South West marine sanctuaries. For further information on the science behind sanctuaries see our background briefing on science of new marine parks.

Is it true that Australia already leads the world in marine protection?

Australia currently has more marine protected areas than anywhere else, however our protection still falls well short of what scientists say is necessary for our marine life to survive into the future. Our relatively high level of protection is due partly to Australia having the third largest marine territory in the world, and partly because the world’s oceans are very poorly protected, with less than 1% protected to National Park standard.

Australia has less than 4% of its waters protected to National Park standard, with almost all of these marine sanctuaries located on the East Coast, and mostly in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In the South West, and on the West Coast, less than 1% of waters are in marine sanctuaries.

Evidence from the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) where 33% of the Park is protected in sanctuaries shows great benefits including huge increases in the size, abundance and diversity of marine life with little impacts on fishing. For example, a survey of recreational fisher’s opinions three years after the rezoning of the GBR sanctuaries (to 33% of the GBR Marine Park) in 2004 shows that of 2500 fishers surveyed, 73% reported no ill effects on their actual fishing. The marine park contributes billions to the Australian economy. This evidence is consistent with other well-designed and well-managed marine sanctuaries around the world.

What proportion of South West marine life is unique?

The Australian government’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry says that “In Australia’s southern waters, 80% of known species are endemic—the result of a long period of geographic isolation and their exposure to severe climatic conditions.”

Why shouldn’t recreational fishing be allowed in marine sanctuaries?

Scientific research has established that marine areas do not recover to their natural state and produce significant ecological and fisheries benefits until both commercial and recreational fishing are removed. For example in a comprehensive study in New Zealand, it was shown that there was no benefit to conservation from removing commercial fishing by itself, but once recreational fishing was removed also, the numbers of large snapper dramatically increased.

Another study in two northern New Zealand marine protected areas with differing levels of protection, the Tawharanui Marine Park and the Mimiwhangata Marine Park, showed an unequivocal example of the recovery of lobster populations in marine sanctuaries, but clearly demonstrate that allowing recreational fishing in marine protected areas has little benefit to populations of exploited species.

Note that both types of marine life that were the subject of research above are also found in Western Australia, and that fisheries management is much the same, though the recreational take of Pink Snapper is higher in WA, and lower for Southern rock lobster. There is no substantial reason why these results would not apply to Australia’s West Coast.

What are the economic benefits of marine sanctuaries?

A study into the The Economics of Marine Protected Areas released in 2010 by the respected Allen Consulting Group has found that a network of marine sanctuaries in the Commonwealth waters off Australia’s SW marine region will have a positive impact on the economy. The study found that marine sanctuaries are likely to result in more stable catches for fishers and provide insurance against stock depletion such as that being observed in the rock lobster fishery. Specifically, that spill over benefits to the rock lobster industry can generate $2.4m, that the direct economic benefits for tourism operations would increase from $45m to $55m a year and continue to grow, and that overall there would be a net long term benefit to the WA economy.

Will a government sanctuary plan cost jobs?

Very few, if any, fishing jobs have been lost in Australia’s South West due to marine parks and sanctuaries. In stark contrast, hundreds of jobs have already been lost as Fisheries managers necessarily restrict effort in key fisheries that have come close to collapse in the last decade. Conservation and protection of the marine environment is far less a threat to employment in regional fishing communities than continued fishery failures.

When the Western Rock Lobster (WRL) fishery collapsed in 2007, nearly 200 boats were forced out of the fishery. 581 Boats actively fished in 2001/02 season (536 in 05/06), while in 2008/2009 season only 395 boats fished. It is important to note that there have been very real impacts on commercial fishing economies in WA, such as the loss of 186 boats in the WRL fishery, but that these impacts have been as a result of fishery collapses and management uncertainty – and they would dramatically outweigh any impact on fishing industry employment caused by conservation of the marine environment with sanctuaries.

For demersal Scalefish fishery on the West coast, in 2001/02 season 59 boats fished using the wetline method only (until 2007 all crayboats were permitted to wetline in a loosely regulated manner). In 2008/09, after the fishery ceased to be ‘open access’ due to overfishing concerns, 41 boats remained. Many gillnet operators have been also been forced out of this fishery in recent years, to address severe localized stock depletion in the metropolitan area. Fishing effort needed to be cut in half in 2007, due to ongoing overfishing. This had far more of an impact on commercial fishers, and the availability/affordability of seafood, than will ever be caused by a world-class network of sanctuaries.

How popular are marine sanctuaries in the South West?

The most comprehensive research conducted to-date on public attitudes to marine sanctuaries has revealed that 72 % of Western Australians who regularly fish support the creation of marine sanctuaries off the coast to protect fish stocks and other marine life.

The state-wide research conducted by market research company Patterson Market Research (known for its monthly Westpoll in The West Australian newspaper) found that almost two-thirds of Western Australians support protecting at least 30% of the waters off the WA coast in marine sanctuaries. Other research findings showed:

  • 63% of Western Australians believe that marine life in WA’s waters is in decline.
  • Six out of 10 people who frequently fish (fished more than 12 times in the past year) support protecting at least 30% of the waters of WA’s coast in marine sanctuaries. 6
  • Eight out of 10 Western Australians would like the state and federal governments to work together to establish marine sanctuaries off the coast.
  • 67% of people support protecting at least 30% of waters directly off the coast from Perth, such as the Perth Canyon, in a marine sanctuary.

Download: The Economics of Marine Protected Areas

Will sanctuaries reduce the availability of local seafood?

Australia became a net importer of seafood in 2007, not due to the creation of marine parks, but because of significantly increasing demand and declining catches (see Seafood Importers Association).

Seafood imports to Australia have grown over recent decades so that now just 20-30% of all seafood consumed locally is caught locally. All the while marine protection has remained almost static with states such as Western Australia having less than 1% of its waters protected in sanctuaries (the national figure is 4%).

The reality is that a network of new sanctuaries will have negligible impact on the availability of local seafood. The primary reason for any recent reductions in local seafood has been the unsustainable catch rates allowed under successive governments. Between 2003/04 and 2007/08, Western Australia’s fishing catch declined 29%, with some fishing regions such as the South West region declining in volume by 62% between 2005/06 and 2007/08 with a 59% decline in value over the same period (see Report by ACIL Tasman for the WA Fishing Industry Council Feb 2010). Due to other factors such as the appreciation of the Australian dollar, increasing fuel prices, increasing labour costs and continued over-fishing the situation is expected to have got worse, not better, since 2007/08.

Are South West Commercial fisheries sustainable?

The following is a list of some of the recent fishery collapses on Australia’s West Coast, caused by over-fishing, environmental changes or a combination of both:

  • Western Rock Lobster fishery – Kalbarri Big Bank area has been totally closed for several years. Overall fishery has been cut in half. There has been an almost total recruitment failure in this fishery for the past five seasons.
  • Shark Bay Snapper fishery – reopened after 3 years, though the Freycinet Gulf fishery remains closed.
  • Cockburn Sound Crab fishery – closed for three years, reopened last year. • Swan/Peel Cobbler – Closed for 10 years.
  • Orange Roughy trawl fishery – closed indefinitely 20yrs ago.
  • Midwest Abalone fishery – Caused by marine heatwave, closed indefinitely.
  • Southern shark gillnet – collapsed in early 2000’s, only two of four sharks targeted is currently at acceptable levels.

Between 2003/04 and 2007/08, Western Australia’s fishing catch declined 29%, with some fishing regions such as the South West region declining in volume by 62% between 2005/06 and 2007/08 with a 59% decline in value over the same period (see Report by ACIL Tasman for the WA Fishing Industry Council Feb 2010). Due to other factors such as the appreciation of the Australian dollar, increasing fuel prices, 7 increasing labour costs and continued over-fishing the situation is expected to have got worse, not better, since 2007/08.

Case study: Western Rock Lobster Fishery

The trends in the catches of Western Rock Lobster and the recruitment index for the fishery display all the hallmarks of a collapse, however it is too early to label it as such. Catches which once comprised 20% of the value of Australia’s fishing industry have, according to the latest State of the Environment Report, fallen back to levels last recorded in the 1950s. Australia’s State of the Environment Report 2011 Additionally, the ‘puerulus settlement index’, which looks at the abundance of juvenile lobsters (puerulus) as an indicator of lobster catches three and four years later, has averaged at record lows over the past 5 seasons.

There are a range of theories as to why the puerulus settlement index has been at record lows. Some people speculate that it has been over-fishing. Others think it’s the effects of climate change, or a combination of both. However as there are no protected marine sanctuaries in place against which the fishery can measure what would be naturally occurring, it is impossible to tell. The Marine Stewardship Council have required the Western Rock Lobster Fishery to implement sanctuary areas as a condition of certification, however to-date over many years the Fishery has failed to meet these conditions.

Do marine sanctuaries concentrate fishing effort elsewhere, causing further depletion?

While this seems feasible in theory, and is often claimed by the fishing industry, an independent report commissioned by the WA government on the role of sanctuaries in WA finds that: “Marine sanctuaries may impose costs through displaced fishing effort and short-term reductions in catches, although the empirical evidence of these effects is scant.”

There are over a thousand marine sanctuaries in the world’s oceans, yet there is little scientific evidence of further fish-stock depletion caused after their declaration. Sanctuaries displace fishing effort only as far as their borders. In comparison, there are serious concerns that conventional fishery management on the West Coast addressing serious over-fishing of scalefish like Dhufish and Pink Snapper has displaced commercial fishing effort on to the South Coast, where resultant severe stock depletion as a consequence.

In contrast, recent research by leading fisheries scientists has shown that sanctuaries can actually increase overall lobster catches (by 10%), as well as dramatically increase regional egg production.

Are numbers of seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales and turtles increasing without sanctuaries and aren’t they already protected species?

Species of some whales and seals are recovering, but there is serious concern for many marine mammal species, such as the Australian sea lion which is a flagship species of the South West region and is endangered and in decline. The South Australian Research and Development Institute says for Australian sea lions “if modifications are not made to current levels and distribution of fishing effort or to the methods of fishing (e.g., gear type), further population declines, subpopulation extinctions and reductions in range are likely.”

Recent records show that hundreds of sea lions have been killed in nets annually off South Australia. In Western Australia there has never been comprehensive observer coverage of the gillnet fishery so the number of deaths are unknown.

The Blue Whale remains endangered despite decades of protection from whaling, and is not thought to have yet recovered. Additionally, Australia’s only endemic dolphin, the protected Snubfin, is thought to be declining, and clearly is at risk from commercial fishing practices.

The Pilbara Trawl in Western Australia is documented by Murdoch University as killing at least 20-50 dolphins each year. The message here is that listing a species as protected, whilst important, is only part of the story. We also need to look at protecting their critical feeding and breeding areas.

Why do we need sanctuaries to protect whales when there is no whaling in Australia’s waters?

None of the areas proposed by the conservation sector for marine sanctuaries have been put forward with whale protection as the sole objective. Instead, all these areas are primarily intended to conserve examples of representative habitat types, bioregions and oceanographic features; as well as ecosystems and vulnerable biological communities (eg deep-sea demersal fish and the pelagic ecosystems of the Perth Canyon).

Protecting areas of critical habitat for whales and the food chain that support them is part of that picture, and is one of many factors involved in determining which areas are the best candidates for protection. This is in much the same way as we already conserve critical habitats like wetlands for migratory birds in Australia, regardless of whether the key threats to those birds did not arise in Australia.

That said, interactions with fishing gear such as cray pot ropes and fishing nets; vessel strike and seismic exploration activity are all threats to whales within Australia that can be effectively removed from important whale habitat by the creation of marine sanctuaries.

Are final marine plans accountable to the Federal Parliament?

Marine plans have never been required to go before Federal Parliament – a situation which has been the same since the marine planning process was established by the Howard government.

Has the Federal Government consulted the community in its marine planning process?

The Gillard Government has recently conducted a public consultation process on proposed marine sanctuaries for the South West region. This has followed three years of consultation with stakeholders and public debate in the Western Australian media that has been dominated by support for sanctuaries. The official 3 month government consultation period resulted in the largest ever response to a Government environment process in Australia’s history. More than 39,266 submissions were received by Government, of which 99% supported sanctuaries for the South West. Only 0.1% of submissions explicitly opposed sanctuaries.

Will the submissions to the Government on sanctuaries be made public?

All submissions will be made public via the Department of Environment website, unless the person or organisation has asked for the submission to be made private.

If our fisheries are well managed, why do we need marine sanctuaries?

Central to understanding the case for marine sanctuaries is understanding the difference between fisheries management and management of the marine environment. The marine environment is a highly complex set of interactions between an extremely diverse range of species, from sea lions, whales, dolphins, and turtles through to fish, sea cucumbers, molluscs and jellyfish. Conservation of this incredible array of biodiversity depends on a complex set of management arrangements that protect and conserve the full set of natural values.

Fisheries management however, draws on fisheries science in order to find ways to protect fish stocks so sustainable exploitation is possible. In this way, it can be seen that fisheries management is concerned with utilizing just one part of the marine environment, and that a broader set of management tools are necessary to manage all facets of our oceans.

Marine scientists agree that marine sanctuaries are essential, along with other management tools, for conserving the full diversity of marine life. While scientific research shows that marine sanctuaries can benefit fisheries by helping increase the abundance and resilience of fish stocks, overwhelmingly their primary purpose is to protect our marine biodiversity and manage ecosystems.

Neil Loneragan, the Director of the Centre for Fish and Fisheries Research and the inaugural Chair in Fisheries Science at Murdoch University says that marine protected areas (MPAs) are still needed despite evidence that fish stocks are healthy. ““The primary purpose of sanctuary areas in MPAs is for biodiversity conservation and not fisheries management. These areas are an important component of sustainable oceans management,” he said.

“The protection of biodiversity through MPAs is an insurance policy to enhance resilience in the face of human impacts, particularly climate change.

“They also increase the scope for multi-purpose management of marine areas and provide reference areas to help us understand how the marine environment is responding to a range of influences from fishing to climate change.”

So our fisheries may be well managed to supply fish to markets, however this is quite separate to considerations around protecting nature for all the benefits that this provides.

Marine sanctuaries at risk