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Sydney, Australia
5 September 1997

Senator the Hon Ian Macdonald
Parliamentary Secretary to the
Minister for the Environment

Professor Bellamy, Michael Kennedy, my Parliamentary colleague Duncan Kerr, Ladies and Gentlemen.

I am pleased that the Humane Society have chosen as the theme for tonight the issue of marine conservation.

I say that quite genuinely because coastal and ocean management is an area in which both I and the government have a strong interest.

It is an interest born out of our recognition that Australia's coastline and ocean is both spectacular and extraordinarily rich in biodiversity.

For example:

With marine related tourism and recreation alone estimated to be worth $15 billion a year, the marine environment is also of great importance to our economy. Much of our tourism appeal relies on the fact that our coasts and oceans have not suffered the ecological damage that has occurred in many other countries.

In the lead up to International Year of the Ocean the Commonwealth is introducing a range of new measures to enhance marine conservation in Australia and I wanted to touch on a few of those tonight.

Principal amongst those initiatives has been the inclusion of marine protection as one of the five major capital programs established under our $1.25 billion Natural Heritage Trust. Over the next five years the Coast and Clean Seas component of the activities like Coastcare which, in a similar fashion to Landcare, has been providing funds for hundreds of community groups to carry out coastal remediation projects.

I am particularly pleased that one of the components of Coasts and Clean Seas is our new $8 million Marine Species Protection Program. The program will address threats to the survival of a range of marine species that have been threatened by activities such as fishing, coastal and marine pollution, commercial use, habitat degradation and effects of environmental change.

Targeting the protection of marine species has already been a major focus for the government during the past 18 months.

In that respect, I will release next week the report of the Whales Taskforce. I established the Taskforce last year to advise the government on how Australia can best achieve its goal of implementing a permanent international ban on commercial whaling.

The Fraser government played a prominent role in securing the current moratorium on whaling. The Howard Government is determined to ensure Australia leads the world in opposing any and all commercial whaling. We therefore welcome the report of the Taskforce which gives us good advice on how to pursue our objective.

Our commitment to marine species protection is further highlighted by Australia's recent success in listing all 11 species of southern hemisphere albatross under the Convention for the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animal. Australia is now taking a lead role in the development of a regional agreement between southern hemisphere nations to ensure greater global protection for these magnificent but threatened birds.

We have also taken decisive action to protect dugong in the southern Great Barrier Reef region. Dugong numbers have declined between 50-80% in this area since 1984 and its plight is clearly critical. The dugong is, of course, one of the values for which the Great Barrier Reef was World Heritage listed.

In the face of this evidence, the Commonwealth and Queensland Governments have agreed to establish a chain of 16 dugong sanctuaries in the southern Great Barrier Reef region. In the most critical seven of those areas we have banned gillnet fishing entirely. In the other areas the use of such nets is significantly restricted.

The significance of this achievement can not be over-stated. We have created the world's first chain of dugong sanctuaries and, in doing so, have set a significant precedent for marine conservation.

I am also pleased to be able to announce tonight that Senator Hill will shortly be gazetting strict new controls on the export of Australia sea horses, sea dragons and pipefish.

These incredible animals are coming under increasing pressure from the high world demand for their use in traditional Chinese medicine and for the aquarium industry.

Half of the world's 220 species of sea horses and sea dragons live in Australian waters and, as a precautionary measure, the government will be requiring that the export of these species will need a permit issued by the environment department.

Permits will only be granted for captive bred specimens or specimens which have been taken from the wild under an approved management plan.

This is the first time that a broad group of marine fish species in Australian waters has been the subject to these kinds of export controls.

In addition to those activities funded under the Natural Heritage Trust the government has began the process of developing Australia's first national Oceans Policy.

The problems facing us today are due in no small part to the fact that our marine environments have rarely been treated in a holistic way by Governments. Instead, policies are produced and implemented in isolation, whether they relate to managing individual fisheries, combating marine pollution, or controlling the spread of coastal development.

The development of the Oceans Policy is designed to change this by providing an integrated framework for the planning, management and sustainable development of Australia's fisheries, shipping, petroleum, gas and seabed resources. It will do this in a way that not only conserves and protects our marine environment but also allows us to derive sustainable economic benefits from our oceans.

The policy is a major undertaking and we are excited about the opportunities it provides us with to review comprehensively the way we have done things in the past. The issues are complex - the fact that no other country has been able to successfully develop and implement a truly integrated and comprehensive oceans policy is proof of that.

However, I think the momentum is building in Australia and we are optimistic that there is the political will in all jurisdictions to tackle the hard issues.

Accelerating the development of a national system of marine protected areas will be a key part of the Oceans Policy.

Australia already has a network of marine protected areas - more than 300 covering a total area exceeding 463,000 sq km. However, the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park accounts for almost three quarters of this area.

The current network of Marine Protected Areas has developed in an ad-hoc way over time, reflecting particular conservation concerns as they have arisen.

We recognise that a stronger, more strategic approach to marine protection is needed if we are to retain the full spectrum of marine biodiversity and ensure full representation of all aspects of Australia's marine environment.

Properly designed, with a comprehensive and representative strategic framework, an Australian representative system of marine protected areas will exemplify the concept of sustainable development .

I am therefore pleased to be able to signal tonight that we want to see an acceleration of action on the part of all Australian Governments to meet the common goal of a national system of marine protected areas.

In this respect, the Commonwealth can play a stronger leadership role in both developing marine protected areas in own waters but also in encouraging the States and Northern Territory to follow suit.

We are currently developing an action strategy to identify priority areas within Commonwealth waters for declaration and management as multiple use marine protected areas. Where these areas are adjacent to state waters we will engage the states to gain complimentary action in their management responsibilities.

Both the community and non-government organisations will be closely involved in the process..

We are also keen to ensure that our various ocean industries are involved in the process. Marine protected areas should not be seen as a threat to the viability of those industries and, if consistent with the conservation values we are seeking to protect, we believe that industry can have continuing access to natural resources within these areas.

Through the Marine Protected areas component of the Coast and Clean Seas Program we will continue to stimulate the States to contribute to the nationally representative system within State waters.

Key features which will underpin the national system, such as the strategic framework and the analysis of marine regionalisation and ecosystem distribution, will need to be fully developed.

But the development of these tools is not and end in itself and should not hold up early action where it is clearly justified. We must not fall into the trap of paralysis by analysis or endless consultation.

We intend to see practical results in this area flow through quickly and continuously over time.

In conclusion, I wanted to thank the Humane Society for organising tonight's dinner. It is a group that plays a valuable role in protecting Australia's and indeed the world's environment. I can certainly vouch for the letter writing capacity of Michael Kennedy and his colleagues. Unlike some of our other more vociferous correspondents, however, I am pleased to say the HSI's contribution is usually constructive and helpful.

I know that their work in relation to the International Year of the Oceans will be in that positive vain.

Thank you.

Commonwealth of Australia