Marine Parks – are we missing the point?

This article examines the Marine Parks debate raging in Australia today. An experienced fisher and marine scientist asks the question – are we missing the point?

Not in my backyard?1

In my life I have watched the numbers of fish my family love to catch and eat dwindle and have observed the habitats and ecosystems I grew up with change significantly, and not for the better. I have no doubt that we need to take action, now. But what should we do? Lately Marine Parks have been grabbing the headlines as some people tout them as the solution to all our problems, and others are up in arms with a ‘not in my backyard’ mentality.

There is not one simple answer, but perhaps there is one simple approach that can bring about the positive change we need. The biggest problems Australian inshore oceans face are pollution, destructive fishing practices, and a fundamental error in the way we manage our fisheries…

Maximum sustainable yield and the ‘tragedy of the commons’

Since it was first recognized that our fisheries need management the goal of that management has been achieving maximum sustainable yield from our fisheries. Not maximum economic yield, not maximum social benefit, not maximum food provision for the people…. No, the blinkers were on, the goal has been maximum number of target fish landed, managed on a species by species basis with little regard for the impacts of this fishing on the environment or people. The underlying problem here was an old fashioned and erroneous assumption of the ocean as an infinitely renewable resource and an attitude that nobody ‘owned’ the ocean. Nobody took responsibility, this is the ‘tragedy of the commons’ - there is no incentive to look after things if you know somebody else can just come in and damage the fish stocks or habitats that you rely on for your living or recreation, and you have no say in the matter.

From a population biologist’s perspective the maximum sustainable yield of a single species fishery usually occurs at a population of around 30% of the ‘virgin’ or un-fished population. This is the point at which births in the population exceed deaths for the species being targeted. What this approach fails to take into account are the costs –  the ecosystem costs, to habitats damaged by destructive fishing practices, to the species caught and discarded because they are not the ‘target’ species or the social costs to other fishers, marine users and the society they are part of.

Shifting baselines

I hear people say, “I can still catch fish, my fishery is still healthy, what’s the problem?”. The problem is in what we use as a baseline for comparison. Most of us have never had the chance to fish in an area that has not been subject to heavy fishing and pollution since before we were born. The baseline we use to compare our fishery health to is not a natural or even well managed situation. Just because we can still catch fish using our fishing skill, local knowledge and modern boats, electronics and gear does not mean that our ecosystems are healthy or that things can’t be a whole lot better.

A new approach

Time for a new approach – time to consider maximum ecologically sustainable yield, time to look at maximum social benefits for all, time to stop treating each fished species as something we can mange in isolation with out looking at the environment they live in and the impacts that modern society has on those systems. This is called ecosystem based management (EBM).

We should be aiming for a maximum ecologically sustainable yield, this the scientists say usually occurs when we fish stocks that are at around 60-80% of the un-fished biomass. Crucially if we let stock recover to this level then we actually only need to reduce annual catch by around 15-30% to maintain these healthy numbers. Combine this with a reduction in by-catch (wasting fish) and removing fishing practices that damage habitat and therefore reduce productivity and we can have a situation where there are more fish in our ocean, we can catch and eat around as many as we have in the past and the ecosystem is healthy!!. Fishers work much less to catch almost as many fish, we eat a broader range of tasty seafood and marine lovers can enjoy the experience of seeing more fish and healthier marine environments. Win Win.

All species have different life histories and the percentages in this article are a generalization, but you get the point.

EBM is not as easy as it might sound, to do it right you need to understand the ecosystem you are managing and our knowledge of marine ecosystems is far from complete. This is not an excuse for inaction!

We know the problems, we know the solutions

We do not know it all but there is good science that tells us plenty about what we need to do…


Pollution of our marine environments is one of the biggest problems we face. For example excess nutrients from outdated agricultural practices and urban runoff are a huge problem. We know how to solve these problems and indeed there are some great examples of this – agricultural direct drill and stubble retention practices are a win win for the farmers who reduce their costs and protect their topsoil and for the environment as the sediment and nutrient load into our ocean is reduced. Urban wetlands help remove nutrients and sediment from our drains, they increase biodiversity and ecosystem health and can provide great places for recreation and relaxation. Toxic pollution from industry must have a price, there must be an incentive for our businesses to clean up their act.

Improved Fisheries management

For a better future we need re-examine the destructive fishing practices and change our approach to fisheries management. The blinkers have to come off. We need to manage ecosystems not species, we need to aim for community benefit, acknowledging our commercial and recreational fishers as important members of the community.

The waste of excessive by-catch where in some fisheries more fish are discarded dead or dying than are kept for human consumption must be addressed. We must reconsider our narrow minded attitudes where quality eating fish are discarded because we do not know how good they are while our traditional eating fish become more difficult to catch and more expensive to buy.

Fishing methods that damage our habitats are outdated and have to go. Broad scale bottom trawling simply is not ecologically sustainable. The ‘clear felling’ of the ocean bottom changes the structure of ecological communities. Destructive fishing is usually very capital intensive with big expensive boats, owned by companies not the actual people doing the fishing. These are massive investments and require a big return on investment – it is the environment that suffers as business imperatives drive competition for dwindling resources.

We need to ‘take ownership’ of our marine environment - it is our responsibility. Part of this will be the empowerment of industry and commercial and recreational fishers to be responsible stewards of our oceans. I talk to thousands of fishers, I have hardly ever met a fisher who does not care for our marine environment and want to see it protected. Those who know the fishery they work in is doing damage generally would support change as long as their livelihood is protected. Here is one way we can do this – regionalise our fisheries and change from a capital intensive top-down approach to an employment intensive bottom-up approach.

More fish, more fishers, more jobs = ‘more better’

We need more commercial fishers, not less but we need them catching slightly less each, making more money per fish caught with fewer costs and fishing at ecologically sustainable levels. To do this commercial fishers need to be confident that the environment they fish will support them and their family, next year, in ten years and when their children take over the family business. In many cases the big boats must go, paying off massive boats and expensive gear provides the means and incentive to over-fish. Government subsidies for damaging fishing practices must stop, mistakes must be recognized. When necessary change unfairly impacts on individuals, compensation may be appropriate.

To achieve better management via responsible ‘ownership’ of the oceans where possible we could regionalise our fisheries letting local groups co-manage their fisheries with the community in the certain knowledge that their good work will not be undone by people coming in from the outside and upsetting the balance. For fisheries that cannot be managed on a local level geographically we need to create a real community of fishery and environmental stewards across boundaries. This will not be ‘easy’ and will be easier in some cases than others, but, well, things that are worth doing are rarely easy are they?

Marine Parks – not enough science?

Some opponents of marine parks often refer to there being a lack of science showing that they are effective. This was indeed the case twenty years ago but now the science is well and truly in. Marine Parks are effective for increasing and protecting biodiversity, maintaining ecosystem health and are even effective in improving fishery production (mainly in situations where there is over-fishing). From an economic perspective they help stabilize fisheries yields preventing ‘boom and bust’. They can act as an ‘insurance policy’ against seasonal variation, extreme weather events or accidents. Studies have proven they can increase regional revenues from tourism and bring local benefits to the fishing industry. The ‘spill over’ effect can provide great recreational fishing opportunities in nearby waters and can in some cases remove the need for people to spend excessive time and money scouring the ocean for fish and put great fishing back on a community’s doorstep.
Marine Parks are not the solution to all our problems, but they can be a part of that solution.

Fair for all

There will be costs and we must share the load and help our community. Marine Parks are not ‘business as usual’ and people and business will have to adapt. Some will need and deserve help, we as a community must provide that help. Humans are great at adapting, we can do it.

Situations in which recreational fishers genuinely are at risk of losing the opportunity to fish are few and far between in a multiple use marine park process. There are a few examples in South Australia and elsewhere of some zoning proposals that might restrict certain fishers access too much, these situations must change.

Recreational fishers deserve areas within marine parks where they can fish without competing with commercial fishers, unfortunatly South Australian Marine Parks legislation does not allow for ‘recreation zones’ as, for example, West Australian or New South Wales laws do. This is about lifestyle and opportunity for all, not about demonizing commercial fishers.

Commercial fishers deserve a fair go – the perverse incentives to over-fish and damage environments must be removed and replaced with real incentives to better manage their business without threats from those who do not have a genuine interest in protecting their ecosystems, and without an overhead intensive system that forces ecologically unsustainable practices onto fishers who have to ‘keep up’ to compete. Those fishers who have been forced into destructive fishing practices by Government regulation, lack of regulation or subsidies (however well meant these may have been at the time) should be compensated to allow them to move to better fishing methods or other industries.

Are we missing the point?

So this is my message for all the people, on both sides of the Marine Parks debate, in South Australia and around the world – quit wasting your energy!!

We can manage our marine environment better than we have in the past. Marine Parks are not the only solution but they have a role to play. We cannot let the Marine Parks debate distract us from implementing the other complementary solutions to the decline in ecosystem health.

Some conservationists need to broaden their focus from just advocating for Marine Parks, the commercial fishing lobby need to support Marine Parks that are fair for all as part of broader restructure of the industry, recreational fishers need to see the big picture and learn more about the benefits that Marine Parks can bring them. Working together we can have a solution that is a win/win for everybody and for our marine life.

By all means fight for fair access, but do not throw the baby out with the bath water. Understand the science. Learn from other places where, after initial resistance, Marine Parks (including ‘No Take’ sanctuary zones), are now embraced by fishing communities who have a direct involvement in the better management of their marine environments. Marine Parks are not the problem, the problem is a disconnect between our environment, fishers, fisheries managers, environmentalists and fundamentalist ‘free for all’ big business.

Big business commercial fishing interests - stop trying to manipulate recreational fishers into blanket opposition of Marine Parks. Recreational fishers - stop blaming commercial fishers for all the problems, this is a shared problem, we need a shared solution. Politicians - stop using Marine Parks as a political football, in Australia it was the ‘right’ (Liberal) side of politics that implemented current Marine Parks Processes and it is ‘left’ (Labour) Governments that are now continuing the process. Greenies - understand that Marine Parks are not the only improvement we must make to protect our environment and culture, though it is understandable for small not for profit groups to concentrate their limited resources where they feel they can make the most difference.

We are part of our environment and do not have a god given right to interact with our oceans without thought for the consequences. Fishers are not the problem, but we can be part of the solution.


About the Author

Josh Coates is a qualified marine biologist who has worked for Government fisheries research agencies, major national environment groups, boating industry companies, aquaculture enterprises and Indigenous organizations working to manage ‘sea country’. He has developed and manages sustainable fishing education programs for recreational fishers and engages in scientific and marine management forums and processes. An enthusiastic and experienced recreational fisher Josh has fished waters across South Australia and Australia. In 2005 Josh joined with other concerned recreational and commercial fishers to found not-for-profit Fishers For Conservation (FFC), an organisation which educates, supports and represents conservation aware fishers. More information on FFC is available at and feedback is welcomed at


Hardin, G. (1968). The tragedy of the commons Science, 162 (3859), 1243-1248 DOI: 10.1126/science.162.3859.1243

Richard W. Zabel, Chris J. Harvey, Stephen L. Katz, Thomas P. Good and Phillip S. Levin, (2003) Ecologically Sustainable Yield Marine conservation requires a new ecosystem-based concept for fisheries management that looks beyond sustainable yield for individual fish species American Scientist, Volume 91, March April