25 October 2020

Recreational fishers hit back at claims Batemans Marine Park rezoning is threatening marine life

| Hannah Sparks
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Blue groper fish swimming at Batemans Marine Park.

A blue groper in Batemans Marine Park. Photo: Pete McGee.

Recreational fishers have hit back at conservationists’ claims that the relaxation of rules within the protected waters of Batemans Marine Park is threatening marine species and habitats.

They say there are bigger threats to species such as the grey nurse shark, habitats such as kelp forests, and climate change, and the amount of fish caught by recreational fishers in the rezoned areas is minimal.

Conservation groups have been outraged at the relaxation of rules in the park to give recreational fishers more places to fish. The decision was made by NSW Minister for Agriculture Adam Marshall and Member for Bega Andrew Constance in December 2019.

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Five areas previously off limits were approved for activities, including catch-and-release recreational fishing, line fishing and spearfishing. They included Brou Lake South (catch-and-release recreational fishing); Montague Island South and East (recreational line fishing, spearfishing and diving for abalone, lobsters and other invertebrates); Clarks Bay-Freshwater Bay and Forsters Bay (recreational line fishing and spearfishing, but no use of nets or traps); and Nangudga Lake (recreational line fishing and prawning using a handheld scoop).

A map of the new zoning in Batemans Marine Park.

A map of the new zoning in Batemans Marine Park. Photo: NSW Government.

The Save Batemans Sanctuaries community group says the changes add stress on endangered grey nurse sharks, blue gropers, seals, penguins and other sea birds around Montague Island.

The group also says vital southern ocean kelp forests and biodiverse rocky reefs already under threat from encroaching urchin barrens now face even greater pressure to survive.

However, Euro Fishing Association president Adam Martin – who was instrumental in the relaxation of the sanctuary rules – said the chances of harm to grey nurse sharks is minimal.

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He said leaders of the local recreational fishing community previously agreed to a list of behaviours – including fishing only with circle hooks and lures – to ensure responsible fishing in the areas rezoned.

“There’s almost zero chance of hurting a grey nurse shark with a circle hook,” said Mr Martin. “Anecdotally, grey nurse sharks don’t take to fishing lures.”

Fishing at Montague Island is also restricted between 1 November and 30 April each year to protect grey nurse sharks.

Members of Save Batemans Sanctuaries holding sign.

The Save Batemans Sanctuaries community group has called for the NSW Government to reinstate sanctuary zones. Photo: Supplied.

Mr Martin agreed there was previously poor management of fishing in the park, but said he and many other fishers are working on conservation projects to restore it.

He also said there are bigger issues conservationists should be talking about, such as microplastics, which are invisible to the human eye but harming key marine species.

“To be honest, we are over fighting with the groups we feel attack us all the time,” said Mr Martin. “We are trying to get on with good work.”

Dalmeny commercial abalone diver Stephen Bunney is a leader in the marine restoration space and agreed there are bigger environmental issues at play.

Mr Bunney – who is also on the Batemans Marine Park Advisory Committee – is worried about the impact climate change is having on the Great Southern Reef.

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About 70 per cent of Australia’s population lives within 50km of the reef. Its unique species and kelp forests are under threat from ocean warming, according to marine ecologist Dr Cayne Layton.

“When you understand what we’re dealing with – climate change – and then you look at what these environmentalists are saying about sanctuary zones, you throw your hands up in the air,” said Mr Bunney.

“It’s like putting a fence around a block of land when a bushfire comes through. Environmentalists are making out these sanctuary zones are the silver bullet, but they’re not.”

The Save Batemans Sanctuaries group has called for the NSW Government to reinstate the sanctuary zones or to safeguard more of the marine park as no-take zones.

Seahorse swimming at Batemans Marine Park.

A seahorse at Batemans Marine Park. Photo: Supplied.

Tackle World Moruya store owner Nick Toozoff said conservationists should be talking about bag limits and catch size limits rather than banning fishing in the sanctuaries.

He argued the number of fish anglers can take from the sanctuaries is “bugger all” and works hard to educate his customers to fish responsibly.

“Most limit their catch, rather than catch their limit,” said Mr Toozoff.

“Fishing is a pastime for many generations. I understand that commercial fishing has wiped out a lot of fish, but if fishing is managed well, it means my kids, their kids and so on can still get a feed.”

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The Save Batemans Sanctuaries group said it wasn’t consulted by the NSW Government before the changes and wants to be consulted before the overall review of management rules across Batemans Marine Park is completed.

But Mr Martin said the NSW Department of Primary Industries did consult stakeholders and there was a lot of work done by scientists employed by the NSW Government on a risk assessment of relaxing the sanctuary rules.

“The claim that there was no community consultation is not true,” he said. “It just probably wasn’t done to the level those stakeholders wanted.”

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Philip Creagh11:12 am 27 Oct 20

Similarly to Bill Barker and Stephen Bunney I have been involved with the BMP since December 2005 when it was announced by Minister Debus with Mark Fleming from Coastwatchers singing its praises. There was absolutely no forewarning that the park was going in, nor was there ANY BACI (before and after control impact) studies done. If recreational fishers were so supportive of marine parks (according to eNGOs) then why the secrecy?

When the BMP was designed absolutely NO consideration was given to any other factor other than spatial management of fishing – no controls on pollution, no consideration of the different habitats, no consideration of economic or social values. In short it was rushed design that needed to be implemented prior to the March 2007 state elections.

In 2006 the eNGOs were successful in divide and rule between commercial and recreational fishers – at the time I thought this was an abomination.

I’m sorry Bill your claim that 30% SZ is ‘great for the health of the environment’ is a tired cliché in 2020. The MEM Act legislates that resource use within the marine estate, including marine parks, has to be consistent with the principles of ecological sustainable development. It also stresses (in section 22) that the primary purpose is to ‘conserve the biological diversity …’ Absolutely no mention that the sole purpose is to ‘protect fish stocks’. In 2006 the official mantra was that marine parks are NOT fishery management tools – I wonder what has happened since then that has changed the conservation movement’s position.

There is certainly a great amount of literature to support spatial management of fisheries where the fishery is heavily degraded by inappropriate and unregulated fishing methods. However in NSW where commercial and recreational fishing IS heavily regulated it has been shown that the difference between fish stocks in SZ and outside does NOT demonstrate any unsustainable fishing levels (Kelaher 2014). In all the literature that has been produced locally there is NOT one paper that has examined the effects on marine biota.

In 2006 we were told that ‘habitat is a surrogate for biodiversity’, perhaps that mantra has now changed to ‘improved fish stocks are a surrogate for biodiversity’? Of course anyone who understands animal behaviour or animal production knows that comment is a furphy.

To me Professor Booth being instrumental in establishing an artificial reef, at a cost of many thousands, next to the Sydney Opera House is a typical example of how some university folks can become divorced from reality. Whilst the rest of Sydney Harbour is bathed in so much pollution its advised NOT to eat fish, here we have someone fiddling around the edges while the waterways burn.

In April 2006, in the very first newsletter I sent to the Narooma Port Committee about the Marine Park, I was hopeful that pollution may be at least attempted to be addressed. The unregulated stormwater drains, sewerage outfalls and agricultural pollution. But that was not to happen. Some facebook conservation commenters claim that there is no pollution at sea – I wonder sometimes what planet some people live on. With the advent of the Marine Estate management strategy then that provides a way forward, addressing pollution front and centre. It is NSW Fisheries role to ensure that fish stocks are sustainably managed.

The amnesty on the six SZ in the southern end of the BMP was announced in December 2019. The ‘official’ two month consultation period did not happen due to bushfires and CV-19. However since then there has been a state government election that this proposal was taken to by Andrew Constance, and then ample opportunity to make representation to the government. The claim there has been no consultation is rubbish. As Chair of the Narooma Port Committee I have already made my representation to the appropriate bodies.

Stephen Bunney8:48 am 27 Oct 20

More work needs to be done in NSW toward baseline/finer scale survey for near shore habitats and in developing management responses to repair or inhibit marine habitat degradation.
The factors driving marine ecosystem change are varied and comprehensive.
No take zones are on a spectrum of important management responses and their location, design and management needs to be very specific to be effective.
It should be understood that each marine spatial area , be it sanctuary zone or not, will have its own unique environmental vulnerabilities and strengths. And due to the high connectivity of our marine environment the stressors and consequences in one spatial area can quickly effect another. Spill over works both ways.
We need sanctuary zones, but they need to properly managed and resourced.
People need to realise that for SOME of these key spatial areas that management response in the form of direct interventions maybe required and that just because an area has been labeled a sanctuary zone should not preclude necessary action.

Everyone should be pushing more for better management of the entire coast rather than within a few sanctuary zones within a marine park.
Recreational and commercial fishing can be managed sustainable by bag and size limits and what should be addressed urgently is the impacts of warming oceans, how this is moving certain species and,more urgently the impacts of urban development along the coastline, like sewage outfalls and storm run off.
I dive commercially for abalone south from Montague and regularly encounter grey nurse sharks where once they were a rare occurrence around where I dive.
Sanctuaries have locked up rocky reefs which have since succumbed to over grazing by sea urchins and substantial efforts are underway to address these imbalances.

I have been closely involved in activity on the Batemans Marine Park for many years, coming at it from the point of view of conservation. I served two terms on the Marine Park’s Advisory Committee. One thing clear from the present debate is that there is still a long way to go to bring local people together to discuss the best way forward. The major problem is that the state government has never provided an effective forum where locals can share their experiences and draw on expert advice. It is as if the government prefers to have people in the community at each other’s throats so that they, the government, can go ahead and do whatever they want. There is still a significant gap between those who tend to view the marine environment in terms of how well it produces certain species of fish, and those who are concerned about the health of the environment overall and its resilience to threats of all kinds. Ironically, it has been shown over and over again that sanctuary zones are great for the health of the marine environment. And if a certain proportion of a marine park is closed to fishing – say 30% – the larger and reproductively more prolifice fish that are allowed to grow in those areas will populate the rest of the marine park to the extent that all will be better off – the environment and the fishers. A ‘win-win’ outcome is there if only we could grasp it.

The success of the ‘divide and rule’ approach is clear when some people end up pushing the odd idea that conservationists are only interested in restricting fishing and are not interested in other threats to the marine environment. My experience is that the people who support an effective marine park are precisely those who are also deeply concerned about threats such as plastic pollution and climate change and are extremely active in taking action on those fronts as well.

Your article unfortunately fails to reflect the complete failure of the government’s processes leading up to this decision. There was no scientific justification for the changes made. The government’s own Marine Management Authority wasn’t asked its opinion. They didn’t even bother to tell the local Marine Park management. The government’s own law requires consultation before any boundaries are changed, but the government got around this by saying “Oh, we’re not changing the boundaries of these zones, we’re just saying that people can go and fish in these areas and they won’t be prosecuted.” Nearly a year after the decision, the legally-required consultation still hasn’t happened. There were one or two meetings with recreational fishers, but these were not part of any proper consultation process – there were no minutes or declared outcomes and other sectors weren’t consulted or even informed – not conservationists, ecotourism operators, scientists, oyster growers nor Traditional Owners. And the demolition of these sanctuary zones was never considered in any meeting of the Batemans Marine Park Advisory Committee, which exists to deal with this kind of thing. Not to mention that the government also has a separate broad review process under way for the marine environment which actually seems to have at least some rules around how it is supposed to work. Why weren’t these sanctuary zone proposals considered as part of that process? It was interesting that Adam Martin, a person for whom I have great respect, was described as “instrumental in the relaxation of the sanctuary rules”. This contact wasn’t reported to the Advisory Committee when it occurred. The government supposedly has an obligation to consider all points of the view in the community about these matters, not those of just one privileged group. What was the process here? Where is the documentation? Where is the transparency?

I have great respect for fishers, recreational and commercial, and all those who seek to ensure that the natural world is able to flourish into the future, for fishing, for our economy and well-being of our local population and for the health of the environment. As a community we have the opportunity and the obligation to care for these precious places and the creatures that inhabit them, for ourselves and for future generations. If only the government had the competence and good sense to help make that happen.

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