June 8 marks World Oceans Day – a day that’s of special significance to me as both a sailor and an environmentalist.
When I sailed solo around the world in 1986/87, I looked forward to visiting the fabled Sargasso Sea at the heart of the Bermuda Triangle. Instead of a ‘golden rain forest of the sea’, literally covered by seaweed, I found a fading legend carpeted by rubbish.
The horrific amount of garbage in the world’s oceans spurred me to form Clean Up Australia. From its very beginning, Aussies have demonstrated their overwhelming concern about the health of our waterways and rugged landscapes by taking action to conserve our natural environment.
But how much progress has really been made for our oceans?
Less than five per cent of the 16.5 million square kilometres of seas that ‘girt’ our shores are protected, despite many of our marine species being found nowhere else.
Pollution, over fishing and entanglement in nets are just some of the many threats to our extraordinary oceans and marine life. Since Clean Up Australia began in 1989, the number of Australian fisheries that are overfished has increased from five to 15. Australian fisheries are among the most highly regulated in the world and yet the decline in our fish stocks continues.
Action to protect both our marine environment and boost fish stocks has all too often been stifled by election-cycle hysterics. Claims that marine protection costs jobs are not supported by social, economic or scientific evidence.
Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other international treaties, Australia has a responsibility to manage our waters, not just for economic gain, but for conservation as well.
We need to take notice about what is now happening in the Sargasso Sea. The Bermuda Government is showing leadership and has formed an alliance with science and conservation groups to ensure the sea without shores has a future.
Protection of our oceans is the new frontier for conservation.
Our own south west marine region contains a greater level of unique marine life than the Great Barrier Reef – but less than 1% of these waters are protected. This massive area, between Kangaroo Island and Geraldton, hosts some of Australia’s biggest and most mysterious seafloor creatures and oceanographic life-giving currents. It is no surprise that it is a special place for marine life, including the world’s great whales.
Community consultation has opened for protection of the south west marine region. The outcome will influence federal decision making about whether our treasured coastal lifestyle and the long-term protection of this unique marine environment is secured.
Research from Australia and around the world provides compelling evidence of both the benefits and the urgency for action.
There are numerous economic and social benefits protection and informed management offers Australia’s marine based industries of the future – medical breakthroughs from the pharmacopeia that our oceans hold, new eco-tourism ventures that underpin the economic security of our coastal communities, and a truly sustainable fishing industry.
It is not a case of there being a choice between protecting the marine environment and jobs or local industries. They are interlinked and a network of marine sanctuaries would ensure our oceans remain healthy and keep fish on our plates.
Ian Kiernan AO