Great Barrier Beefs

Five years after the Australian government imposed contentious zoning laws that cover one-third of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, fishermen are feeling slighted. In-depth interviews with commercial and charter fishers reveal they feel left out of the process that created large no-take zones in their former fishing spots, according to a new survey – and that controversial compensation payments did little to mollify the fishing community. This discontent illustrates the hurdles that other efforts to establish major marine reserves face in winning support from a key constituency.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park covers 344,400 square kilometers—an area one-half the size of Texas—off the north-eastern coast of Australia. Protecting adequate biodiversity across the reef’s vast range of habitats— the mandate of Australia’s managing agency— resulted in an expansion of the park’s no-take zones from 4.5 percent to 33 percent in 2004. The rest of the park remains open to regulated trawling, reef line fishing and inshore netting.

Fishermen voiced concerns about the expansion during a 7-year planning process, but managers showed little interest in following up, says Stephen Sutton of James Cook University in Townsville, Queensland. Sutton also wondered whether media portrayals of fisher’s negative reactions were accurate. To find out, Sutton and his colleagues conducted face-to-face interviews and mail surveys with 114 fishers over more than two years, starting in 2007. The researchers’ affiliation with an independent branch of the university, the Fishing and Fisheries Research Centre, and their strong rapport with fishers, convinced many fishers to disclose sensitive details about their fishing spots and their perceptions of the new zoning restrictions, Sutton told Conservation.

Overall, most of the commercial fisherman surveyed did not favor the rezoning, but recreational fishermen – who do not depend on the park for most their income – were more supportive. And few fishers felt expressly engaged in what Sutton termed a “one size fits all” stakeholder involvement process. Although government planners had requested important fishing locations, for instance, he says many fishermen grew distrustful and didn’t participate fully because officials said little about how they would use the information. Since the sweeping laws were enacted, fishers said their access to productive areas, business profitability, and personal income all have dwindled. But the team also reports in Marine Policy that fishers adapted to new stomping grounds, mainly by moving their fishing efforts closer to home ports.

The study also suggests money didn’t buy much love for the restrictions. To ease the financial pain caused by the expanding no-take zones, a government assistance program for the reef’s displaced industries ballooned from an expected AU$10 million to more than AU$250 million just three years after the restrictions went into effect. Compensation “spiraled out of control” due to election-year politicking and industry pressure, concluded a previous study, published in Ocean and Coastal Management — potentially setting an expensive precedent for future conservation efforts. Sutton’s team was unable to tease out exactly how the “readjustment” payments shifted opinions, but the researchers did conclude that enduring negativity could hurt compliance with the fishing restrictions. Still, the authors project the sour responses should decline over time.

The Australian experience highlights the challenges faced by marine reserve managers in the United States, says Meg Caldwell, executive director of the Center for Ocean Solutions in Monterey, California. “It’s rare that fishermen are cheerleaders for the [reserve] system,” she says. “We may be asking too much of the survey to get positive results.” But the more honest planners are in engaging fishers and other stakeholders, the more straightforward their input will be, Caldwell says.

There’s no evidence, though, that happiness has any impact on whether fishermen comply with regulations, she notes. Instead, she believes “social cohesion” matters more, such as that created by having fishermen police themselves or enforcing strict penalties for violations.

Sutton hopes the study will help conservation managers become “more receptive to what the impacts are and how people perceive rezoning for future management decisions.” Although Australian marine park managers believe they successfully invited public consultation, they should try to understand why dissatisfaction oozes from those who bear most of the rezoning costs, he says. There will be future zoning proposals, Sutton notes, and analysts need pose some tough questions: “Did the process work equally well for all stakeholder groups? Did we get quality information? How can we do it better in the future?” Amy E. West | January 15, 2012

Sources: Lédée EJ, Sutton, SG, Tobin, RC, De Freitas, DM, Responses and adaptation strategies of commercial and charter fishers to zoning changes in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, Marine Policy, Volume 36, Issue 1, January 2012, pp. 226-234. doi:10.1016/j.marpol.2011.05.009.

Macintosh, A, Bonyhady, T & Wilkinson, D 2010, Dealing with interests displaced by marine protected areas: A case study on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Structural Adjustment Package, Ocean and Coastal Management, 2010, Volume. 53, no. 9, pp. 581-588. doi:10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2010.06.012

Image Amy E. West