California, Australia on the new frontier of conservation

By Nicholas Nehamas

Massive marine parks are the new new thing in the world of environmental conservation.

Last week, California established a marine park off the coast of San Francisco, creating a chain of protected underwater sanctuaries that will stretch from Oregon to Mexico. The San Francisco Chronicle reports the reserve is “the first statewide network of underwater parks in the United States.” Fishing will now be banned or restricted in 13 percent of the state’s waters.

A tourist swims on the Great Barrier Reef. The coral reef, which is one of Australia’s most popular tourist attractions, is under threat from record temperatures, overfishing and pollution. (Reuters)

Bigger Down Under

But Australia has the Golden State beat. Yesterday, the government there announced that it plans to create what will become the world’s largest network of marine parks, covering approximately 1.2 million square miles of water, an area as big as India.

That’s a lot bigger than the previous record holder, a series of Pacific reserves created in 2009 by President George W. Bush.

Two of Australia’s national treasures, the Coral Sea and the Great Barrier Reef, fall under the new sanctuary’s protection. Environment minister Tony Burke said fishing and mineral exploration will be restricted in more than a third of Australia’s waters. You can view an interactive map of the project here.

The announcement came a week before he and Prime Minister Julia Gillard plan to attend a UN conference on sustainable development in Brazil.

You can’t please ‘em all

What struck Latitude News was how different reactions to the projects have been in Australia and California. Down under, it seems, no one is happy. Environmentalists contend that the new system does not go far enough in preventing overfishing or protecting vulnerable marine environments. Critics say the sanctuaries appear to have been deliberately drawn around oil and natural gas reserves.

Meanwhile, fishing groups are outraged. They claim the new parks will cost their industry 36,000 jobs and $4.01 billion. The government has promised a $100.3 million compensation package. But the fisherman don’t think that will be enough. “Tony Burke’s just single-handedly lost the [next] election for the Gillard government,” said Dean Logan, a prominent industry executive, to The Herald Sun.

Do Australians care about the environment?

Logan might well be right. A 2010 poll showed that the percentage of Australians who believe in climate change had dropped by ten percent since 2008. Furthermore, a 2006 government study shows that the percentage of Australians who were concerned about the environment was at its lowest point since 1992.

Compromise wins out in Cali

In California, however, the reaction has been more muted, even harmonious. Conservation groups praised the decision as a boon for marine life and tourists. American Indians were pleased that the state reversed course and allowed the tribes to maintain their ancestral fishing rights.

Sardines lie dead in a harbor near Los Angeles in March 2011. The fish were believed to have been killed by a toxic algae bloom. Although algae blooms are a natural phenomenon, they are made more severe by pollution. (Reuters)

The Los Angeles Times reports that the new regulations “drew a round of applause” after being passed at a public meeting in Eureka. The newspaper writes that the moment was “an indication of the unusual level of consensus reached by fishing groups, environmentalists and tribal leaders.”

The future isn’t bright

But will it be all for naught? Cuts to the federal budget have meant that America’s national park system is struggling badly. While Yosemite is okay — for now — California plans to close fifty-four state parks this summer.

Straight to the Source