Background to the proposed South Coast Marine Park

In 2019 the Western Australian Government launched its  “Plan for our Parks, securing 5 million hectares in 5 years”.  As a part of the “Plan”, the government announced the proposed establishment of one of Australia’s largest marine parks, which will be located along the South Coast of WA, taking in more than 1,100 kilometres of coastline from Bremer Bay through to the South Australian border.

The marine park consultation and planning process connected in late 2020, is being run by the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA), and overseen by the WA Environment Minister. Traditional Owners and the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) were also planning partners in this process.

Government set up a 12-member Community Reference Committee (CRC) in 2021 to provide community advice and input throughout the planning process, with the primary role being to put forward recommendations on a zoning scheme for the proposed park. 

Ministers Whitby and Punch repeatedly reminded the CRC and all participants that a balanced approach to the planning process was required. In fact, the DBCA website states:

“The proposed south coast marine park will be carefully designed to minimise impacts to commercial fishers and incorporate any existing restrictions into management arrangements where possible.”

Despite this instruction, at the final CRC meeting held in March 2023, the zoning scheme proposed by DBCA did not offer a balanced outcome.  This fact was highlighted by DPIRD, who provided an alternative rationale to the CRC which had better regard for the impacts of DBCAs zoning proposal on commercial and recreational fishing, but was ignored.

At the conclusion of the final CRC meeting, it is understood that the committee were unable to reach a consensus and DBCA disbanded the group immediately.

What does the DBCA draft zoning scheme look like?

The (DRAFT) DBCA zoning scheme is characterised by 32 sanctuary zones which will cover up to 26 percent of the total marine park area. These areas are set aside as ‘no-go zones’ for commercial and recreational as well as and other industries.  The proposed sanctuary zones include some of the region’s most productive fishing areas.

The proposed sanctuary zones extend from the high-water mark to 5.5 km offshore, however this can also include island groups extending more than 50 km offshore.  Sanctuary zones will also prohibit fishing by all sectors from a number of popular beaches, which means that locals and tourists will not be able to fish from the beach, nearshore waters, or coastal reaches in these areas.

In total, this marine park proposal will add more than 3,300 square kilometres of no-take zones to approximately 70,000 square kilometres of Commonwealth Marine Park sanctuary zones already in place in the offshore waters of the south coast.

How will this impact the local businesses and lifestyle?

It is important to note that a socio-economic study on the impact of the proposed south coast marine park has NOT been undertaken by government.

Current modelling on the marine park indicates that up to 26 percent or more of the proposed marine park area will be allocated to no-go sanctuary zones, so the impact on commercial and recreational fisheries will be catastrophic for many businesses.

Based on the current percentage of proposed sanctuary zones, the commercial fishing industry will be economically unviable and cease to operate. This will have enormous socioeconomic impacts on coastal communities.

There will also be a significant impact on the lifestyle of region as tourists and locals will be unable to fish, or take other local seafoods, such as abalone, scallops and lobsters from within the numerous sanctuary zones.

In addition, the loss of the local fishing industry will result in ever diminishing local seafood supplies for restaurants, hotels and fish and chip shops.

Of further concern is the impact that will result from the sanctuary zones displacing fishing pressures to concentrate fishing effort into the “open areas”. Reducing the available fishing areas, will increase likelihood of conflict between recreational and commercial fishers and will significantly increase the fishing pressures on the remaining fishing areas.

What do commercial fishers want?

Commercial fishers do support marine parks, and in most cases are able to work harmoniously alongside the marine park management protocols, including those in the sensitive World Heritage listed areas of Shark Bay and Ningaloo. However, the arrangements need to be balanced and sensible.

Commercial fishers, more than most people, recognise the need for sustainable fisheries, because they need to ensure there are fish for the future. No fish means no business, so commercial fishers follow strict sustainability criteria and act as custodians of the marine estate.

Marine parks are a valuable tool to help support marine environments and apply a layer of protection against harmful practices. Sanctuary zones are also useful tools when applied correctly, as they can isolate areas of sensitive biodiversity that may need special attention. However, it is important to note that the industry does not use harmful practices, which is demonstrated by the current pristine condition of south coast habitats.

The important thing is to find a balanced outcome that will allow our regional coastal towns to flourish and support healthy fishing sectors, while also protecting our marine environments and biodiversity.

Contemporary south coast commercial fisheries

Commercial fishers are heavily invested in sustainable fishing and are managed to world’s best practice by government fisheries scientists and managers.

They are stewards and custodians of the marine resources, who spend more time on the water than anyone else, and generously share enormous levels of research data, catch reporting and other science-based information to the Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development (DPIRD) for use in the ongoing management of the South Coast fisheries and marine environments.

This is the polar-opposite to the popular images of super-trawlers in the Northern Hemisphere. In contrast, most South Coast commercial fishers are small, family-run businesses that live and work in the region.  These businesses have a strong vested interest in the longevity and sustainability of these important resources.

The small footprint of the industry, and the relatively small catch levels, along with the available fishing days and remoteness of this expansive area, ensures that there is limited impact on the health of the marine waters.

How important is fishing for the South Coast regional towns?

The fishing industry is the lifeblood of many regional coastal towns.

While not boasting a large population, the South Coast region is highly productive as an agricultural and fishing region, and also supports other industries including tourism, mining and film-making. These industries are all interwoven, with members of the local communities often working across multiple industries.

Importantly, the South Coast is also a lifestyle destination for many West Australians.

Boasting a small population base means local people work across many roles, so the local fisher may also be the local football coach, or a volunteer fire-fighter, while other family members could be school teachers, shop owners or tradespersons.

As such, the closure of a key industry, like fishing, will having a cascading effect onto other businesses.

The local fish and chip shop won’t have local supply, so prices will go up. Tourists won’t have access to local seafoods, so food-based tourism will go elsewhere. The local suppliers managing the iceworks and commercial refrigeration will have no work, so they will likely close as well, as will the local marine maintenance, mechanics and other support businesses. Shops and caravan parks will lose ice supplies.

Families will not have work and will leave town, so there will be less children in school, less teachers, less medical services. The impacts will be significant.

The South Coast region is also historically significant as it was among the very first industry zones in WA, and was flourishing even before the Swan River Colony and Perth were established. The indigenous people captured seafood for their communities for tens of thousands of years prior to that.

What can you do?

Information is important, so please ensure you are aware of the details behind the proposed marine park and the potential impacts to your community, as a lifestyle and holiday destination.

Even the smallest tasks can make a big difference.

It’s important that all South Coast locals talk with each other to better understand the consequences of the marine park and the future of their regional towns.

Keep an eye out for the upcoming public consultation, which is expected to open in in August.

It is important that you get involved and send in a response, so please read and understand the information available and provide a submission through the formal channels.

You should also make sure that your local Parliamentary member, and Shire Council, are also aware of your concerns, so they can share your comments with decision makers.

Post and share your comments on social media with your local member and the Environment Minister, as well as your friends. The more people that are aware, the better the outcomes will be.

If you have questions, please contact the WA Fishing Industry Council (for commercial fishing questions), or Recfishwest (for recreational fishing questions) and Tourism Council WA (for tourism related questions).