WAFIC issues urgent warning over South Coast Marine Park fiasco

Recently the core consultation process for the South Coast Marine Park was completed, with the final Community Reference Committee (CRC) meeting being held in Esperance. The DBCA-led process was a complete disgrace from start to finish and unnecessarily caused significant anxiety and friction at a number of levels, particularly among south coast fishers.

Pre-determined results

As background, the earlier Buccaneer Archipelago Marine Park development had openly ignored the interests of commercial fi shing and delivered a fait accompli negative outcome.

The whole consultation process was a box-ticking exercise where legitimate inputs were openly ignored throughout and the outcomes were decided before they even started. Instead of enjoying sustainable local barramundi, visitors to Broome restaurants are now eating seafood imported from interstate, while thinking they are actually enjoying a local dining experience.

Commitments given – then broken
On 12 October 2020, WAFIC was called to the Environment Minister’s office where it was acknowledged by the number of very senior government officials present that the earlier DBCA consultation processes had been wholly unacceptable.

Apologies were liberally delivered and absolute commitments given to WAFIC and Recfishwest that things would significantly change for future marine parks, to ensure the interests of fishing would be respected, particularly for the south coast. Sadly, ever since, and despite WAFIC’s constant representations to government, there has been little improvement – and in some ways it’s worse.

We have continually received hollow platitudes that everything would work out well in the end if we stick with the process– but absolutely not, the currently recommended outcomes are very destructive.

Absent scientific data
The south coast process kicked off without a sound scientific basis, with DBCA relying upon a new desktop study of previous desktop studies utilising data that was more than 25 years old. WAFIC has been through every single paper quoted by DBCA, which has demonstrated that their lack of underwater knowledge is nothing short of embarrassing. DBCA has also relied a lot on the anecdotal
opinions of the conservation community, which have been regularly shown by WAFIC to have little to no foundation.

Unfortunately, the true science has been sadly avoided.

Furthermore, Cabinet has not considered the tens of millions of dollars needed to undertake scientific research along more than 1100 kilometres of coastline and islands to ensure the future integrity of the marine park.

No baseline studies have been conducted, or even budgeted for, similarly no longitudinal studies have even been envisaged.

Therefore, the effectiveness of the zones and management plans can never be determined, which is
thoroughly irresponsible.

DBCA approach contrary to government policy
DBCA has also failed to heed a key government scientific report which is displayed front and centre on the government website at https://www.fish.wa.gov.au/Documents/research_reports/frr169.pdf

This document: “The efficacy of sanctuary areas for the management of fish stocks and biodiversity in WA waters” (authored by two eminent senior scientists in Jim Penn and Rick Fletcher) questions the efficacy of sanctuary zones in improving fish sustainability outcomes, finding the best approach is to take a broader-based ecosystem management methodology.

It concludes there is no scientific basis in the WA context to support the justification of sanctuary zones for the purposes of managing harvested fish stocks.

Therefore, DBCA does not have any authority to seek to control fish sustainability outcomes in WA.
This is absolutely the sole role and responsibility of DPIRD.

DBCAs role should be limited to biodiversity and DPIRD should be respected as an equal planning partner to ensure proper integration of interests.

Scant ecological information
DBCA has really struggled from the very beginning in having enough ecological information to make any sound recommendations. The first set of wild guesses came from them looking at the coastal geomorphology and using this as some sort of an indicator of what the benthic habitat might look like up to five kilometres offshore.

Obviously, this was a futile exercise, but nevertheless has still created the core foundations of the current DBCA sanctuary zone designs.

The next phase was conducted (you’re probably not going to believe this, but it’s true) by relying upon Google Earth studies – where they sat at their screens in South Perth and zoomed in and out to try to conclude what the ocean floor looked like.

They then chartered a light plane and did a transect of the coastline, gazing from the foggy window to try to identify sites which might possibly be unique. This process has been amateur, and despite our repeated offerings, they have never once used the first-hand reliable experience and input of commercial fishers.

Let’s face it, the abalone boys put on a dive mask every day to explore the depths, and they know, like the back of their hand where every single reef, sponge garden and coral site lies.

What a poor track record
Before the south coast process started, and ever since, WAFIC has asked that the mess in the Ngari
Capes, Kimberleys and Buccaneer Marine Parks first be mopped up before subjecting any fine people at Marmion, or the South Coast to comparable treatment.

We pointed out that the Ngari Capes was commissioned in 2012 and gazetted in 2018, yet the compensation processes are still outstanding, and that a structural adjustment package for each of the Kimberley parks was essential to repair the damage to industry to ensure the remaining operators can move forward on a sound footing.

It would be interesting to see the mood of the decision-making DBCA officers if they were subjected to trying to survive for years with impacted pay packets and no compensation.

Controlling the narrative
When the initial consultation meetings were set up, DBCA brought out their trump card – requiring attendees to download an App and type in their questions. Unbelievably, they wouldn’t allow attendees at a supposedly open forum to utter a single word. This would surely have to be a public consultation standard borrowed from Siberia.

Instead, DBCA was able to take its time, via the App, to sort through the written questions and provide crafted platitudes as answers.

Mind you, a number of the more challenging questions were not even answered at all. DBCA claimed these were conveniently lost due to some glitches in the App! And they wonder why our trust in the process was soon eradicated.

No safety net
Given this inaction, WAFIC stepped forward and offered to work alongside government to either patch up the gaping holes in the FRICMA compensation legislation, or write a new Act, if necessary.

This offer was ignored, so the process for the South Coast Marine Park continued without any compensation safety net in place. This immediately created a high level of uncertainty for potentially-affected fishers, but fortunately the Ministers have recently stated there will be little need for compensation, as they will design the marine park in such a way as to minimise impacts on commercial fishing.

Well guess what, despite these strong Ministerial assurances, DBCA has defiantly released a proposal (which wasn’t even voted upon by the CRC) to lock up 25 percent of the south coast into sanctuary zones!

This creates a real challenge for government. The Ministers have been crystal clear by publicly committing to minimising the impacts on commercial fishing, to guarantee there will be little need for compensation.

Yet DBCA is deliberately disobeying this instruction, as the proposal as it currently stands will cause extraordinary damage to local fishing families as well as seafood supply to the community.

It is difficult to precisely gauge with the information to hand, but it appears that unless significant changes are made to the current DBCA recommendations, a compensation package in the order of $36million would be required from government for the south coast alone. Not to mention the significant amount also needed for Marmion, plus of course they still haven’t sorted out the Kimberleys, Buccaneer or Ngari.

Add it all up, and we conservatively expect to see well north of $70million of unbudgeted taxpayer funds to clean up the debris. And this is for compensation and adjustment alone, not counting compliance and essential scientific research.

Dishonest use of commercial fi shing information
It’s no surprise to anyone that a high percentage of the DBCA proposed sanctuary zones include the most productive fishing areas, which were wilfully stolen when the commercial fishers were asked to provide DBCA with the areas they could not possibly consider losing.

Supposedly this was to allow key fishing activities in priority areas to continue, but of course this was a complete hoax, as just like in other marine parks, the information was directly used against the fishers.

This DBCA sanctuary zone plan is also contrary to the detailed commercial fishing advice provided by DPIRD who, given they are the government’s manager of fish resources, surely should be listened to and respected. Especially as they are supposedly an equal Planning Partner to DBCA.

The currently proposed sanctuary zone areas amount to more than 3000 square kilometres, but in reality, given it swallows up the most valuable productive waters along the coast, the potential economic impacts go far beyond 25 percent, and can be up to 80 percent for some fishing operators.

No forethought to compliance, no budget in place
We also see that DBCA barrelled through earlier marine parks without any attention to future compliance, so now their lego-like, jigsaw-shaped sanctuaries in the Kimberleys have resulted in boundaries that are almost impossible for fishers to adhere to. And there is no commitment yet to
monitoring them, which will soon require enormous investments in compliance, with new boats and crews to patrol a couple of thousand kilometres of linear boundaries, as well as extra supportive office facilities and operational costs.

Cabinet kept in the dark, huge cost implications
Government ministers are reliant on good advice from their respective departments, and this extends not just to the quality of guidance provided, but also what might not be put forward. I really do wonder if DBCA declared all of the relevant information with regard to the likely quantum of
costs of compensation and compliance when seeking Cabinet support for what are now unnecessarily overly-complex and highly-restrictive marine parks. Ones which will devastate sustainable and renewable commercial fishing and axe into the supply of high-demand fresh fish to the broader

With a modicum of foresight, an excellent marine park, based on valuable commercial fishing knowledge and science, balanced with conservation and cultural values, could so easily have been created, and these simplified sanctuary zones would have most likely saved the WA taxpayers more than 100 million dollars in compliance and compensation, and also retained a key provider to the WA food bowl to boot!

Indigenous groups not sufficiently involved
During the consultation process, WAFIC also advocated very strongly for true indigenous involvement, given the local groups had been listed as Project Partners with DBCA.

WAFIC has lost count of the number of times that key marine park meetings were held with no attendance by the groups, which really makes one wonder if DBCA is genuine about proper engagement, or whether they are just offering token lip service. Critically, the CRC and consultation
agendas were also set up to keep the fishing and cultural groups separate to avoid two-way discussions, which ultimately allowed DBCA to dominate the cultural policy settings without proper collaborative dialogue.

We acknowledge that the Esperance Tjaltjraak people have long established governance arrangements and been actively and constructively involved throughout, but the Wagyl Kaip, Mirning and Ngadju mobs were brought along by DBCA quite late into the process.

As a result, there has also been insufficient opportunity for WAFIC to engage with these key Project
Partners to ensure a balanced mutual understanding of needs.

Missed indigenous partnership opportunities
Furthermore, these groups are only in the early stages of establishing governance arrangements for ILUAs, or the outcomes of the SW Native Title Settlement, and their consequent ability to properly consider the cultural heritage priorities through widespread consultation amongst their own peoples, or in turn to engage with the commercial fishing industry to inform discussions of their newly formed Cultural Heritage Committees.

Furthermore, just like earlier marine parks, potentially valuable economic partnerships with the commercial fishing industry have not been given any opportunity of exploration.

In other words, the DBCA process to identify the cultural priorities, counterbalanced with an
understanding of environmental and socio-economic (including commercial fishing) impacts, is dangerously wafer thin.

Unfortunately, there is going to be a large number of indigenous people who will feel rightfully upset in the future when they realise that binding decisions about cultural areas and sanctuary zones have already been locked away without their awareness, or opportunity for considered input or balanced debate.

This process has been clearly rushed through by DBCA to deliver predetermined outcomes.

WAFIC rejected as a formal participant
In 2021, WAFIC submitted a proposal for the fishing industry to become a formal Project Partner in the marine park so that our true knowledge of the south coast waters can be put to best effect, and we could participate in constructive longer-term marine park management in partnership with the indigenous groups.

This opportunity was rejected, and since then the DBCA attention given to the interests of the commercial fishing industry throughout the consultation process has been nothing short of

Where is the socio-economic study?
DBCA has not supported the development of a comprehensive local socio-economic impact study, which should most certainly have been done to inform any consideration of candidate sanctuary zones.

This is thoroughly irresponsible and demonstrates that the lead agency has completely botched the consultation process. It does not even meet minimum standards.

It is no surprise that the Esperance Shire Council is rightfully incensed that environmental zealotry has over-ridden any attempts to secure a sound understanding of the socio-economic consequences of the marine park design upon the local community. The masses haven’t been consulted.

The negative effects don’t just extend to commercial fi shing or the local community, there will also be significant unwelcome impacts upon the many tens of thousands of regular recreational fishing visitors from the Goldfields and Wheatbelt who flock to the south coast each summer.

As an example, the Bremer Bay consultation conducted by DBCA was in winter and attracted 38 visitors (including me), yet up to 20,000 visitors descend upon this town every January, and none of these have been consulted. Similarly, the number of summer visitors to the Esperance and Duke of
Orleans caravan parks is astronomical and they are going to be extremely agitated when they discover how much water has been locked away from recreational fishing without their consideration.

Nor has there been any attention whatsoever to the local fish & chip shops and restaurants and fresh fish markets in Albany and Esperance, which will have their supplies seriously curtailed.
From the DBCA perspective, there has been a singular consideration at play – to lock up as much ocean as possible without any regard whatsoever of the consequences.

Cumulative impacts not considered
Furthermore, no allowance to date has been made for the cumulative impacts of losses of productive waters across the state, displaced or translocated efforts and the direct reductions in seafood availability in local or metropolitan markets.

Unbelievably, zero analysis has been done on the net environmental damage which will occur from locking up sustainable fishing in WA waters, with fresh south coast supplies being directly replaced in the local markets by unsustainably caught frozen imports from Chinese trawlers.

Surely, any respectable conservation agency with a modicum of proficiency would properly consider these broader perverse environmental impacts.

WA already imports over 70 percent of its seafood consumption from unsustainable overseas sources,
and it’s about to get a whole lot worse during this term of office, as every fresh local tonne locked away ensures a dodgy frozen tonne is imported.

Trust is the casualty
The bottom line is that the DBCA process has been wilfully incompetent from the start, and unless the
government quickly swings this agency around, there will be some unconscionable impacts crashing
down upon many innocent individuals and communities. The culture of this organisation is rotten and is all about making hollow promises.

Importantly they have clearly broken the commitments they openly made in the Environment Minister’s office back in October 2020. They have demonstrated zero integrity at every step of the way, so the commercial fishing industry can rightfully have absolutely no trust in DBCA.

Ministers can restore the faith
The fishing industry and WA community will now have to rely upon the Ministers to step up to keep the commitments they have openly given in public forums, where they have directly asked us to place our trust in them and that they will not sign off on the proposed sanctuary zones if the commercial fishing industry’s interests are adversely affected.

Also, that compensation will not be required because the final marine park will be designed in such a way as to avoid economic impacts. Both of these promises are inextricably related and need to be delivered in full.

All eyes are now focused on the two Ministers.

It will certainly be a defining test of the sincerity and integrity of the government.

Darryl Hockey