Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

“Shortcomings” Identified in Marine Park Network

By Ian Lowe

A report finds that highly protected marine areas tend to be the least economically valuable rather than the most ecologically vulnerable.

There were celebrations in the scientific community when the Australian government announced the world’s largest network of marine protected areas last year. But now detailed analysis of the changes has revealed what the science journal Nature calls “worrying shortcomings” in the network’s coverage of the oceans.

Lisa Barry and Hugh Possingham, who are based in the Environmental Decisions Centre at the University of Queensland, analysed the extent to which the protected areas represent the full range of marine ecological systems. They concluded that the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea regions are now well protected.

Elsewhere, however, the picture is much less rosy. Of the 85 bioregions identified, 30 have the highest level of protection for less than 1% of their area.

"A key problem is that the highly protected areas tend to be in deep water, whereas the most vulnerable ecosystems are usually closer to shore, on the continental shelf,” Possingham said. He pointed out that significant areas of shallow northern waters are believed to have potential for fossil fuel development, and speculated that the government might be reluctant to rule out those possible economic activities.

I vividly recall the responsible Minister, Tony Burke, defending the proposed network against attacks from fishing interests by pointing out that most of the protected areas are so far from the coast they are unlikely to restrict fishing. A Sunshine Coast MP has asked local residents to advise him about impacts on the fishing industry there, even though the nearest protected area is nearly 500 km away. I suspect what we are seeing in the oceans is the pattern that has been observed on land: areas are set aside as national parks or protected areas only when they are of little commercial interest.

The same Minister has been under fire for caving in to mining interests in setting the boundaries for protection in Tasmania’s Tarkine region. The boundaries of the Kakadu National Park were blatantly manipulated when it was first gazetted to allow the Ranger uranium mine to be developed and to provide for the possibility of further exploitation in the future of other uranium deposits at Koongarra and Jabiluka. The Koongarra area was finally added to the national park last month at the insistence of the traditional owners, but the Ranger mine continues to operate and the Jabiluka area is still excluded on the grounds that it might be the site of a future uranium mine.

It seems the science still gets set aside when commercial interests are involved.

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Science is also used selectively by some groups opposing development. Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney, has published a new study of the alleged health impacts of wind turbines. He found that nearly two-thirds of Australia’s 49 wind farms have never been the cause of health concerns among those living nearby. The majority of the health complaints have come from people living near the small number of wind farms that have been publicly criticised by those opposed to wind energy.

Chapman concluded that people are more likely to report they are unwell if they have been told that wind turbines can make them sick. He found that people were much more likely to report symptoms if they were strongly opposed to wind energy, while the correlation between actual noise levels and reported illness was very poor.

The National Health and Medical Council reviewed the available evidence in 2010 and found no link between proximity to wind turbines and any statistically significant levels of illness. A Senate inquiry also found no evidence that wind turbines cause health problems.

Chapman cited a New Zealand study in which people were told that health problems could be caused by “infra-sound”: vibrations outside the audible range. The healthy volunteers were then divided into two groups – one lot were actually exposed to the low-frequency vibrations produced by wind turbines and the other to silence. Both groups who had been warned of the possible effects reported the same symptoms!

Despite the lack of evidence of any real health impacts, the Coalition has promised an “expert inquiry” if it wins the September election. That looks like sheer populism.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.