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26-28 November 1997
Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

Ethics of Research and Management Practices in World Heritage and Other Environmental Sensitive Areas: Policy and Practice. To you Dr Mountford and other distinguished scientists, researchers and Australians and ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasure on behalf of Senator Robert Hill, the Minister for the Environment, to welcome you to Canberra, Becker House, the home of the Australian Academy of Science and to this Fenner Conference on the Environment.

Richard mentioned that about a year ago he suddenly became aware of some of the issues or some particular issue that perhaps prompted this conference. I also, as a politician from North Queensland with a great respect for the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and the Reef CRC also became aware of that particular issue in a very political way and so it's really a pleasure for me to see the Academy and yourselves looking at this particular issue, to come to some conclusions and recommendations for Government on how we deal with the matters that you are looking at this Conference: the Ethics of Research and Management Practices in World Heritage and Other Environmentally Sensitive Areas. It is a theme that is of great importance to Australia and to all governments who have responsibilities for national parks, world heritage areas and marine parks.

Australia, as you know, has eleven World Heritage sites, we have over 800 wetland sites listed under the RAMSAR Convention and a wide range of national parks and reserves administered by Local, State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments. The management of research in protected areas is a critical issue for all levels of government in this country. It is an issue that the community is watching with increasing interest.

We need sound information about the environment and the way it reacts to the pressure we put on it if we are to be sure that we are doing our very best to protect it.

Now that is a bit like a motherhood statement but as always the problem is in the detail. We need to ask ourselves what is appropriate and how do we decide when the benefit of manipulative research outweighs the environmental costs.

In some situations the choice can be fairly simple and clear cut. For example, we as a government have objected very strongly to the killing of whales by the Japanese in the Antarctic for the purpose of research. We simply do not believe that it is justifiable.

Unfortunately, the situation is not always so clear cut.

The issue which stimulated public activity most recently, and which indirectly led to this Conference, which I referred to earlier, is one as I said of particular interest for me as a North Queenslander and one whose electorate office is in the same city as GBRMPA's head office - and will continue to be so I might say despite comments to the contrary. And the experiment to which I refer is The Effects of Line Fishing experiment which is being conducted by the Reef CRC also based in Townsville.

Fishing is a permitted activity within the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area. It is therefore vitally important that we know how the reef ecosystems react to this pressure if we are going to be able to ensure sustainable fishing on the reef and we are going to be able to ensure the protection of the environment and jobs.

The Effects of Line Fishing experiment was designed by a consortium of very highly respected and reputable scientists on behalf of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority. Nevertheless, the proposed experiments became the subject of intense national controversy late in 1996 -- To such an extent that one commentator, what I thought was a rather over the top comparison, compared it to or drew a parallel with experiments conducted in the concentration camps during World War II.

But the experiment did raise that sort of public controversy.

From the political perspective, the controversy led to a situation in which the necessary zoning changes to enable the experiment to begin were passed by the Senate by only one vote.

In the heat of the controversy it was surprising to learn that there was little guidance from international or Australian literature on the ethics of experimental science in protected areas. The controversy raised the core issue of the balance between the need to obtain scientific information to underpin management and the general principle of minimising impacts on protected areas.

Protected Areas:

In recent decades substantial attention has been paid to the ethics of experimental research on humans and on captive animals. But not much is done for the natural environment. It is perhaps surprising that the broader ethical issues of experimental research in environmentally sensitive areas have only recently become matters of urgent attention.

Your Conference will raise a number of deceptively simple issues. The first of these is that of defining protected areas and what is reasonably allowable within them.

The range of protected area categories as determined by the World Conservation Union is pretty wide. While all protected areas control human occupancy and resource use to some extent, there is substantial flexibility in management. The range extends from highly protected areas such as strict nature reserves or scientific reference sites which are off-limits to human access apart from scientific research through to the general use or buffer areas in multiple-use protected areas, such as the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Multiple-use protected areas provide for sustainable extractive activities, harvesting of timber, wildlife or fish and for recreation, education and tourism. All these uses are based on the natural values of the protected area. Underpinning multiple-use management is a recognition of the interdependence of conservation and economic activities. This reflects a growing awareness that the challenge is no longer deciding whether conservation is a good idea, but how it can best be implemented in the national and international interest.

In multiple-use areas there is usually a gradient between multiple-use and strictly protected zones which lies at the heart of the function of maintaining essential biological processes, preserving species, diversity and genetic variation and providing reference sites.

It is important that the effects of use can be measured, and as necessary mitigated, in order to prevent irreversible damage to natural heritage or to the productive capacity of ecosystems.

Effective management of multiple use therefore requires a sound information base. Judgments have to be made on the basis of the best available information. A core dilemma is the one which faces this Conference - achieving the appropriate balance between supporting scientific research specifically for management and a broader need to support fundamental research that may not appear to have any immediate relevance to management.

Environmental ethics

The second issue which your Conference raises is that of environmental ethics. It is generally accepted that the quality of the air, soil and water of the planet has diminished following widespread depletion of resources and as a result of pollution, particularly in the areas closest to human settlements. The ethical problem is to establish a working relationship between the needs of technology - and the economy - and nature.

This dilemma reflects a deeper philosophical division -- Should the interests of mankind be the focus of concern or should we recognise that the environment has an intrinsic value that we are morally bound to protect?

Manipulative research

The third theme raised by your Conference is that of manipulative research.

Manipulative research is generally understood to be research that involves death, pain, or imposed change or disruption on organisms and ecosystems. It is considered an integral part of the scientific approach to the testing hypotheses. Without the manipulation of systems to reduce or control the variables in the natural world, it is not possible to discriminate amongst alternative explanations of observed patterns.

This way of doing science in protected areas is not supported by everyone -- and some sections of the conservation movement are examples of that.

How then do we resolve these dilemmas? How do we, the decision makers responsible for the managing of our valuable protected areas, weigh up the pros and cons of research proposals ?

Environmental ethics is a growing but diffuse field of philosophy. The core component is the way in which human kind values and interacts with the natural environment. Ethical evaluation requires a set of guidelines which can assist researchers and managers in the identification and design of research proposals.

I know that a lot of work has been done over the last year. Following The Effects of Line Fishing experiment the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority established an Interim Ethics Committee. The committee has developed a series of guidelines and procedures which are now used to evaluate all research proposals on the Great Barrier Reef. These guidelines in turn have contributed to the broader process undertaken by the Australian Science Technology and Engineering Commission of which I understand more will be said later on in the Conference.

Ladies and gentlemen, you will have to consider important issues at this conference. What are the conditions under which research can be justified? What is the responsibility of scientific researchers and environmental managers for achieving the most effective design of permitted experimentation? What is the relationship between the intellectual freedom of the individual researchers and the broader concerns of society as a whole?

These apparently simple questions will lead you into some extremely complex and perhaps passionate discussions. I wish you well in those discussions here at this conference and in your deliberations. I can assure you that the Government anxiously awaits the outcomes of your deliberations and those outcomes will be taken on board very seriously by the Government. I expect that what you do here will have a significance which goes beyond Australia to the broader international community concerned with the management of world heritage and other environmentally sensitive areas.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it's a pleasure as I said earlier for me to be here today to open this Conference. The work that you do will have a great significance and I thank you very much for coming and for offering your time, energies and expertise to tackle these very very unique problems.

Thank you for coming and thank you for having me.

Commonwealth of Australia