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TALKING POINT: Time to Turn the Tide on Health of Marine Life

Ocean Stewardship? We have leagues to go.


Tasmania’s world class marine environment is declining at an alarming pace, so to hear the Primary Industries Minister’s recent claim of strong ocean stewardship beggars belief (Talking Point 4 May). Yes, Tasmania’s Traditional Owners have cared for Sea Country for over 40,000 years, but now, our coastal waters have never been under more pressure, and without immediate intervention we may see an ancient species, the Maugean skate, go extinct.

Tasmanians are seeing dramatic changes to the marine environment, as scientific findings confirm. This year IMAS’ Professor Graham Edgar and his team recorded that over half of the most common reef species in southern Australian waters are in decline. These trends are most pronounced in Tasmania. And last week’s interim report from IMAS on the dramatic demise of the endangered Maugean skate was devastating. The declining oxygen levels in the bay from a combination of historic mining pollution, climate change and the salmon industry are literally causing the suffocation of juvenile skates and it would only take one more climatic event to see the species finished off. How is this good ocean stewardship? The salmon industry has been allowed to more than double its size, no matter the impact on shallow and sensitive inshore waters or endangered species. How is this good ocean stewardship? Fish stocks are depleting or depleted. While the Minister should be commended for her action to reduce fishing pressure on flathead, this alone is not enough.

Pollution from coastal development, ageing waste treatment plants, septic systems, sewage outfall and agriculture flow into the sea. Endangered species such as the Maugean skate and Red handfish teeter on the brink of extinction. Tasmania already has the grim record of the first bony fish extinction in the world with the demise of the Smooth handfish. We also have the lowest rate of marine protection in the country. These issues are compounded by climate change, which is decimating iconic and important giant kelp forest ecosystems. New species are extending their ranges south to Tasmania for the first time. All these issues are in the mix together and point to a bleak future unless we take action.

There’s a lot at stake here. Not only do we have unique marine life that’s found nowhere else, but our coasts are a huge part of the Tasmanian way of life, whether for work or pleasure. One in five Tasmanians fish recreationally and tourists travel from far and wide to enjoy Tasmania’s coast. If we don’t start to do better, catching flathead will just be a story we tell to our grandkids.

The good news is there are solutions. Of course Tasmanians care about their marine life and want action to protect it (Talking Point 18 April). It’s a shame but not surprising that Tasmanians are losing faith in this Government’s willingness to protect the environment. The new Salmon Plan is a huge, missed opportunity without any commitment to reduce or remove salmon farms from inappropriate areas - a key recommendation of the Parliamentary salmon inquiry. Environment Tasmania commends the Independent Science Council for putting together a much viable and sustainable alternative.

Last week an alliance of groups including Environment Tasmania, Neighbours of Fish Farming, Tas Conservation Trust, Bob Brown Foundation, Living Oceans Society, the Australian Marine Conservation Society, The Australia Institute, Sea Shepherd, Environment Defenders Office and the Independent Science Council of Tasmania, called for the removal of salmon farms from Macquarie Harbour to allow the immediate recovery of the Maugean skate. Fallowing the harbour would mean the difference between survival and extinction of this animal that was around when the dinosaurs roamed. The federal government was also urged to intervene, as Tania Plibersek has pledged no more extinctions on her watch. There is still time to save the Maugean skate, the opportunity is now and the solution is clear.

Another opportunity is the Scalefish Fishery Rules Review, open for consultation until 29th May. Will the Government commit to truly sustainable fisheries that Tasmanians can be proud of, and that will ensure fish for the future?

The real chance to turn things around is with the review of the Living Marine Resources Management Act, Tasmania’s main marine law. Tasmania needs to move towards using management practices that are holistic and have ecosystem health at their centre. There is no plan for managing the ever-increasing uses of Tasmania’s oceans. With such compounding pressures, it is entirely fair for Tasmanians to ask: what is the Plan for how we are going to use and share the ocean? Tasmania desperately needs a Marine Plan like the one that is being developed nationally and those that are protecting ocean health in other jurisdictions.

Tasmanians would love more than anything to agree with Minister Palmer when she proudly speaks of Tasmania’s long history of ocean stewardship. We know this because recent polling found that the vast majority (76%) are concerned about the health of Tasmania’s coastal environment.

But now is the moment this can be turned around. Environment Tasmania urges the Government to seize these opportunities. With our oceans under immense pressure, now really is the time for standing up for our oceans and shaping the future that we want for our coasts, oceans, lifestyles and Tasmania’s precious marine life.

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