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Australian Government Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Wednesday, 3 December 2003

Press Conference: Announcement of the Tabling of the Great Barrier Reef Rezoning Plan

Dr Kemp:
Thank you for coming along this morning. As you know, we're all looking forward to Christmas. And this morning I'm about to announce a very big Christmas present for the Australian people. And that is an enhanced level of protection for our greatest natural icon, the Great Barrier Reef.

The Great Barrier Reef is as Australian as the Boxing Day test match. The Great Barrier Reef is much a part of the Australian identity as Waltzing Matilda. The Great Barrier Reef is the greatest natural icon that this country has.

It's globally significant. It draws people from all around the world. A recent BBC survey of 50 things to do before you die has at number two a visit to the Great Barrier Reef. That's what people around the world think of this extraordinary icon.

The Government has been concerned for quite some time at the growing pressures that there are on the Great Barrier Reef. There are pressures on the Reef from land-based activities, pollution from the urban communities, sediments and nutrients coming down the rivers onto the inshore reefs in particular. There's mounting pressure from commercial and recreational fishing and because the Reef is such an enormous tourist icon this pressure from recreational fishing is only going to grow over the years ahead.

There are pressures from coral bleaching, from the warming of the oceans. And in the last five years we've had the two most significant coral bleaching events in the history of the Great Barrier Reef. So there are a very large number of pressures on this extraordinary ecosystem.

Because it's so large, it's the largest coral reef in the world, people tend to think that maybe the Reef is invulnerable, that it can cope with all these pressures and many more besides. But close scientific monitoring of the Reef, not to mention the anecdotes of many people who've been going to the Reef for decades, tells us that this is not the case. The Reef is vulnerable - this extraordinary ecosystem is fragile. And we are the custodians of the Reef, and need to protect it.

As a result of this, we've asked the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority to look at the Reef system as a whole. To look at all the 70 bioregions that the Reef contains, and determine what will be necessary to protect each of these bioregions and, as far as we possibly can, to put the Great Barrier Reef on a long-term sustainable basis.

This has been called the Representative Areas Program, and it's designed to provide a series of protected representative areas across the whole of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, that will secure the future health and resilience of the Reef. I think the key word here is resilience. We need to give the Reef the capacity to regenerate when it's adversely affected by such things as coral bleaching. We need to give it the capacity to resist, as far as possible, the impact of the various pressures that are put on it by those who use the Reef.

We don't want to love the Reef to death. It was Oscar Wilde who said that men kill the thing they love the most. Well, we don't want to kill the Great Barrier Reef. And it is the natural icon we love the most. And we want to preserve that icon through a series of protected areas.

Now, I want to say that I think the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has done a magnificent job in the preparation of the new Zoning Plan. This has been an immensely difficult thing to ask any organisation to do. The Reef is over 2000 km long, it contains hundreds of thousands of islands and coral cays, it has an enormous number of living species. It's a hugely biodiverse area. It has, as I said, 70 distinct bioregions. Some of these along the coast, some on the coral reefs, some in the deeper waters.

To devise a scheme which will provide a sufficient level of protection to secure the resilience of the Great Barrier Reef for the longer term has been one of the biggest jobs that I think we've asked any natural resource manager in Australian history ever to do. And it's taken years to put this into effect.

The Government has said to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority - this is not something you're going to do behind closed doors. You're going to get out there and talk to the community. And we want the communities along the Queensland coast and around Australia to be listened to in the preparation of this plan.

And I think the result of that has probably been that we have just experienced the largest public consultation in Australian history, for any environmental or natural resource matter. We've had over 31,000 submissions as a result of the public consultation.

There have been hundreds of meetings up and down the coast. Those meetings have involved every interest concerned with the future of the reef. The commercial fishing interests have participated fully in that consultation, and I must say I've been delighted with the way in which they've done so. The recreational fishers, and there are about 170,000 of them who use the Reef every year, have been involved in every stage of the process.

Every community whose economic future is reliant on the Reef has taken a deep interest in this plan. We've seen the conservation and environmental interests recognising that this is a huge natural icon that has to be preserved, taking an extremely detailed view of the issues involved and providing very, very excellent input into the whole process.

We've had game fishers who know that their industry depends on how this is done, involving themselves fully in the process. At the end of the day it's got down to how the lines for the protected areas are going to be drawn around particular, small iconic elements of this great ecosystem. The Cod Hole has been looked at and scrutinised from a whole variety of different perspectives. We've had a very close look at the major tourist destinations within the Reef. Charter fishermen have talked to us about the importance of anchorages, and how far they have to travel before they can drop anchor.

So, every possible interest has been consulted. Every member of the Federal Parliament who holds a seat along the Reef zone on the Queensland coast, and many who have not, have taken an interest in this whole process. The Environment Committee of the Government Members, chaired by Bruce Billson, has taken a great interest in how this process has been carried out.

Now, those at the cutting edge of it have undoubtedly been the members of the staff of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Virginia Chadwick. And it has been an enormous, probably life-changing exercise to produce the results that I'm releasing here today.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has the statutory responsibility of recommending to me as Minister a Zoning Plan. In the middle of this year they put out a Draft Zoning Plan that was based on more than a year of consultations up to that point, and of their best scientific information. They put it out for further public consultation, and as a result of that, I think the Marine Park Authority and everyone connected with the Reef has learnt a great deal. We've even learnt where there are reefs that were unsuspected, at least un-mapped, fishermen have revealed some of their favourite fishing spots in the course of trying to protect these from zoning which might be adverse to them.

And all of this has been taken on board. And I don't think anyone can say at the end of the day that they haven't been listened to. They've been heard and hundreds of amendments were made to the Draft Zoning Plan as a result of these consultations.

What we now have is a revised plan which is, I believe, the best that we can produce. The best that Australia can do. Not everybody will agree with every aspect of it. There will be those, and there are those I know, who are disappointed with aspects of the Draft Zone. They believe that a different zoning would have been preferable, that their interests would have been better protected had the Zoning Plan been different to what it is now.

But I don't think anyone would say, whether they are happy or uneasy, that they haven't been listened to. They have been listened to. And the whole process has been remarkably responsive.

And at the end of the day, we have now a series of marine protected areas, Green Zones, on the Great Barrier Reef, and throughout the Marine Park, which lift the level of protection in the Marine Park from 4.5 per cent of the Marine Park to 33.3 per cent of the Marine Park.

Now that is an extraordinary outcome. It's an outcome that will be applauded, I believe, throughout Australia. Australians will see this as, and many of them will see it, many Australians will see this as the best Christmas present that Australia could get - the protection of the Great Barrier Reef.

This is going to be noted around the world. This is a globally significant decision. Other countries have already signaled to Australia that they have been immensely impressed with the process that Australia's put in place. They've been impressed with the ambition that lies behind this plan. And it will have an impact on their own policies.

Around the world we've seen coral reefs badly damaged. In some cases, damaged beyond repair by inappropriate practices, pollution and overuse. The Government is determined that we will never say that about the Great Barrier Reef. The Great Barrier Reef is going to be protected for the future. Its health and resilience are going to be secured, and the plan that I'm announcing today will secure that resilience. That is the best scientific advice that we have.

I've presented to the Offices of the Clerks the new plan for the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef and that plan will be tabled formally in the Parliament today. It will then lie on the tables of House of Representatives and the Senate for 15 sitting days when it is subject to disallowance. At the end of that period, if there has been no disallowance, then the new Zoning Plan will come into effect. And, at that point, I will announce when we will be seeking to put this plan into formal operation.

A key element of that announcement will be the announcement in relation to adjustment assistance for those who have been adversely impacted by the operation of the plan. One of the guiding principles of this whole exercise has been to minimise the impact on existing users.

I understand that the estimate of the impact of the consultation since June has been to halve the economic impact of the plan. The economic impacts, we believe, are quite small in the total scheme of things. We have a tourist industry that depends of the Reef that's worth $4 billion a year. We have a fishing, commercial fishing industry, that's worth hundreds of millions of dollars. We have a recreational fishing industry that is worth hundreds of millions of dollars because of the activities it supports on land.

The impact of this plan, while I won't put a precise figure on it, we believe is very small indeed as a proportion of these total benefits. The benefit of the plan is going to be immense. The benefit is going to be that that $4 billion tourist industry is going to be secured for the future. The benefit is going to be that there will be more fish, and larger fish on the Reef and over time, we expect to see impacts of this on fishing.

There are always going to be discussions about how much there is going to be an impact outside the protected areas and that's a legitimate discussion, but experience will give us the answer. We will know within a few years the impact of this on fish within the Reef. We will know the impact on the health of the coral. We will know the impact on the biodiversity of the Reef as a whole ecosystem.

So, in bringing this plan forward and announcing it today, I want to say how proud I am as Minister for Environment and Heritage, to be able to make this historic announcement. I believe it is a visionary announcement because it shows that this country is prepared to do what is necessary to protect its great natural icons. And the greatest of these is the Barrier Reef. And from today, Australians can feel a great deal more confident than they could before today that their children and their grandchildren will be able to enjoy that Reef as they've done.

Thank you.


Now, I'm very happy to take any questions.

Can you give us an estimate of how long it will take for the Plan to be put into place once it's tabled?

Dr Kemp:
Well, the fifteen days expire in the Senate on the 24th of March, according to the estimates. We can't tell of course whether there will be extra sitting days, and so those dates may be affected somewhat. I would expect that this plan will be in operation by mid-year. So we have a period between the approval of the Plan by the Parliament, the announcement of structural adjustment assistance for those adversely impacted, and the operation of the plan.

What sort of assistance will you be outlining for those affected by the plan [indistinct]?

Dr Kemp:
Well, I'll be consulting with all the industries that have been considered that there have been impacts. We'll be seeking to make the most accurate possible assessment of those impacts and I'll be consulting also with communities along the coast, and at the end of that we will put together a plan for adjustment assistance that we believe fairly recognises the impacts that the plan has. At the moment it's not possible to predict exactly what the character of that will be, and I want to leave that open, because I want to be open to what people say to me. But I'll be devising that plan in consultation with the Minister for Fisheries, Forestry and Conservation, Senator Macdonald, and of course I'll also be consulting closely with my colleagues, the Treasurer and the Minister for Finance.

But there will be some people who, at the end of the day, are worse off because of this?

Dr Kemp:
Yes, there will be individual cases, and there will be impacts on commercial fishing, on net fishing, there will be impacts on those involved in crabbing. There'll be some impacts on line fishers, there'll be a variety of impacts and we acknowledge that. It's not possible to have a plan of this kind without having some impacts, and what the Government has very rightly determined is that we will be fair to all those affected and ensure that there is adequate adjustment assistance available.

Are you confident that it will go through, go through Parliament?

Dr Kemp:
Well, I believe that both houses will recognise that the Australian people will want this path. This is what the country wants, and I believe the Parliament will be responsive to that.

How will the closures actually be enforced? Will there be officers shooting around in boats and so on to check it all out?

Dr Kemp:
There'll be monitoring of each of these zones. The plan itself, this is a very interesting aspect of it, the plan itself has in fact produced fewer Green Zones than exist at present. They're just larger and much better specified, and that means that enforcement will be much easier. For the first time now we've got a Zoning Plan that is specified by coordinates. So global positioning, satellite information, will enable people to determine exactly where they are. Along the coast where there are smaller users who may not have access to GPS, the plan is specified in terms of line of sight points so that people can properly orient themselves in relation to the zone.

And the Great Barrier Reef Authority, through additional assistance that's been provided in recent times has greatly enhanced its skills and professionalism at enforcement. There are big penalties at the end of the day for those who deliberately defy the requirements of the plan. So, I'm very confident that there will be very effective enforcement.

Could you outline those penalties?

Dr Kemp:
Well, the maximum penalty is over $1 million in relation to deliberate infringements by those who want to take fish contrary to legal requirements of the...

Would that be commercial fishers, or even recreational fishers?

Dr Kemp:
Well, the biggest penalties - the penalties are obviously related to the gains. They're intended as deterrents - if they're too low, people will obviously feel it's worth their while paying the penalty and making the profit. So the penalties have to be set at a level where they're deterrents and that's really the basis of how the penalty is set.

Is there going to be a period of time, a sort of educational phase where the penalties will be waived until people, until the education actually gets out there?

Dr Kemp:
Well, I'm sure that the general process is to try to warn people if people make honest mistakes to tell them that there's a problem and to monitor their behaviour in the future. It's not as if we want people to be penalised unnecessarily. But obviously the zones have to be protected and enforced.

Thank you very much.

Commonwealth of Australia