Fisho caught up with Pew's Coral Sea Campaign director Imogen Zethoven in our Sydney offices recently in order to get a handle on what this influencial US-based environment organisation wants to achieve with its plans for the Coral Sea and other Australian marine areas. The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity but otherwise is an accurate record of our conversation.
Fishing World: We've been following the marine parks issue closely. Is your campaign in Western Australia similar to your campaign in the Coral Sea?
Pew's Imogen Zethoven: It's similar but different. It's a campaign Pew is involved with, along with other environmental organisations in Australia. It is trying to achieve something slightly different from the Coral Sea.
FW: I've done some research on Pew since the Coral Sea issue came up. It seems to be a particularly American organisation with specifically American goals. Why, then, is it being concerned with an Australian environmental resource?
IZ: What do you mean by American goals?
FW: On the website it says Pew is "a knowledge based advocate for policy ... concerning the American people".
IZ: That is the Pew Charitable Trusts website you looked at. The Pew Environment Group is an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts. The Charitable Trusts is quite a large organisation that covers a lot of issues from economic policy to health, education and various other things. The Pew Environment Group is the conservation arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts and has become an international organisation. There's an office in Brussels, Europe, and that office is very involved with shark conservation and the footprint of the European fishing fleet. We also operate in a number of other countries, obviously Australia and New Zealand, and we've just established a presence in the UK. The Pew Environment Group is increasingly global and that's because we focus on three global environmental problems: the destruction of the marine environment, terrestrial wilderness and climate change.
FW: How do you see the zone or marine park in the Coral Sea that Pew is lobbying for being funded?
IZ: We would see it funded as any other commonwealth marine park is funded and that is through the federal environment department.
FW: What if there wasn't any government funding available? Obviously things are tough at the moment, what if the Government said, "We just don't have the money"?
IZ: Park management costs are very minor when you look at some of the other commitments that the Federal Government has made. We're in the process of assessing the cost. There's been a lot of commitments from the Federal Government for major expenditure and this is drop in the ocean for the federal outlays. So we don't think that it will be an obstacle. Which is not to say that it will be easy to convince them to spend the money.
FW: So you're fairly confident that there will be money in the budget?
IZ: We're not overly confident but we are pushing for a park that it is adequately funded.
FW: How do you see the park being policed? Would the Navy do it?
IZ: Yes, it would be a combination of the Navy and Coastwatch. And both those agencies are already looking at that area anyway as part of their general responsibilities to manage our maritime border. Obviously their level of commitment would need to be scaled up. The beauty of the proposal we're putting up, and we're in the process of validating that now, is that a fully protected area would cost less than a multi-use park with a network of fully protected areas. They (multi use parks) would need a more complex internal management regime. The Great Barrier Reef is an example of a complex system to manage. If you just have one fully protected area, you just need to protect the boundary.
FW: What do mean by "fully protected"?
IZ: No fishing, no oil and gas exploration - extractive activities would be prohibited. But of course commercial shipping would be permitted as well as tourism, yachting, and naval activities.
FW: One of the big issues at the moment is climate change and how that it is having an impact on the global environment. How does the no fishing policy that you advocate protect reefs from climate change?
IZ: There's an increasing body of evidence from the science community that if you fully protect the ecosystem, then that ecosystem is more resilient to coral bleaching and increased sea surface temperatures. Perhaps one of the leading advocates of that in Australia is Professor Terry Hughes who has built up a very strong international reputation that shows coral reefs are able to recover if they haven't been depleted of fish stocks. The concept of resilience is increasingly recognised and I'm sure you know this concept really well. It's one of the primary arguments for putting aside areas for protection. In the end we recognise that if there's runaway climate change then there's nothing you can do. Given that we have some climate change locked in then there's a necessity to increase the resilience of ecosystems - and that applies to terrestrial areas and marine areas - so they're better able to withstand higher temperatures.
FW: How does Pew differentiate between commercial and recreational fishing?
IZ: Commercial fishing has the potential to be on an industrial scale and certainly is in many areas of the planet. It has the potential for not just serious depletion of fish stocks but also habitat destruction. Where you get significant populations centres, with high levels interest in recreational fishing, then you do get localised inshore depletion. That's an acknowledged issue up and down the eastern seaboard; it's acknowledged in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. I know less about the NSW coastline because I've worked mostly in Queensland. Localised inshore depletion is certainly an issue and so it has to be managed. There are an increasing number of recreational fishers who see the value of a network of fully protected marine reserves along the coastline.
FW: I don't know about that ...
IZ: I know some.
FW: What's your own experience and knowledge of recreational fishing and how it works?
IZ: Well, I'm not a recreational fisher myself but I do have two very close friends who call themselves "fisherholics", but my main focus has very much been on commercial fishing. In the past I haven't very much focused on recreational fishing other than when I was working on the rezoning of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and there were some areas that were closed to recreational fishing. The main issue is localised depletions as I said, but there needs to be regulation and monitoring to make sure there is compliance with bag limits, catch sizes, things like that.
FW: What's Pew's stance on catch & release fishing?
IZ: We have no concern about catch & release fishing, but what we do believe there need to be some areas set aside and fully protected. That is our goal for the Coral Sea.
FW: So do you see catch & release fishing being used as a management tool in some fisheries?
IZ: Well, it's certainly a legitimate recreational activity and is an activity that has helped to develop a conservation ethic amongst recreational fishers and has also developed some good data. It's our aim to access that data so we can see where fishing is happening, where species are taken and to assess the impact of our Coral Sea proposal. We haven't got that information yet, but we certainly hope to because it is in the public interest and there is a public debate.
FW: Just in regards to having a complete closure, fishermen can understand if you prohibit an activity like, for instance, trawling which is obviously a quite destructive method of fishing. Would Pew say, "you can't trawl here but you can troll recreationally for pelagic species. Does that work in with what Pew thinks?
IZ: We believe there should be some parts of the world's oceans that are set aside and fully protected. The actual data on the spatial extent that has been set aside shows that less than 0.1 per cent (of the world's oceans) is fully protected. If you look at the terrestrial areas, it's just over 6 per cent. So the marine environment is well behind the level of protection that's provided on land. We believe there needs to be a substantial increase in that level of protection in order to have some areas where the ecosystem is as close to natural as is humanly possible. And there's a range of community benefits to that. There are science benefits - having benchmark areas to measure change in the rest of the world. There are the benefits of national parks which have been well recognised for over one hundred years - the enjoyment and appreciation of the natural environment. Even if we get to protect 1 per cent of the world's oceans that leaves 99 per cent of the global oceans, in theory, for recreational and commercial fishing, which is a considerable amount.
FW: That depends where the fish are. Yellowstone National Park in the US, which is the world's oldest national park, actively encourages recreational fishing and sees it being an integral part of what the park is all about and there's the Gila World Heritage area in New Mexico, I know (influencial American environment and fisherman) Aldo Leopold was involved in forming that as the first legislated wilderness areas in America. Again, the Gila park actively encourages recreational fishing and other things like hunting. That seems to work all right.
IZ: There's also a diversity of marine reserves in the US and the best example is the North-west Hawaiian Islands National Marine Monument, which was created in 2006 by former president George W. Bush.
FW: My question is, there are fully established national parks in America where recreational fishing has been acknowledged as helping increase the diversity of what they're trying to do with those national parks. Why can we have a similar thing in areas like the Coral Sea?
IZ: There is diversity nationally in Australia with some marine parks where fishing does occur, like in the yellow zones in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, and where fishing doesn't occur like in the green zones in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. In the Coral Sea there is actually very little recreational fishing and what we're finding is that the level of pushback (by Australian anglers) is disproportionate to the actual level of fishing that occurs there. That is because there have been a few people who have deliberately misled a larger number of recreational fishers in Cairns. We know through personal contact that there has been a deliberate misunderstanding created. And in fact when fishermen realise that the area we are proposing is very far offshore and they never go there then it's not an issue for them. So we are talking about a very small impact and a very large community benefit that would last forever.
FW: If there is only a small recreational impact, then why does there need to be a blanket no take zone?
IZ: Because there is a tremendous value in setting aside an area that is fully protected. It's very rare; most of the world's oceans have been used and the impacts get bigger and bigger and the geographic reach gets further and further. So to set aside an area like that is a great legacy. The rest of the world can know what a totally natural area looks like and how it functions.
FW: Your Pew environment MD Josh Reichert in the interview he did with Sport Fishing magazine in America said that reasonable people from both sides can sit down and create some middle ground. How can there be middle ground if you guys are saying it is going to be closed completely and there's no debate?
IZ: I think he also said there are some people you never find middle ground with and that they are a small element of the population. And what we've found is that the vast majority of anglers don't go out there (to the Coral Sea). They are mainly inshore anglers or in rivers or freshwater. Only a small number of people have the capacity to visit the Coral Sea, whether it's the financial means or the time to travel that far out. So when we're talking about middle ground there's plenty of anglers that would have no concern about this proposal. The only concern they may have is the theoretical possibility that if this happens then the entire Great Barrier Reef will be closed to all fishing, now that is ridiculous. It's ridiculous because it will never happen and we would never push for that to happen nor would any other environment group we know of.
FW: The point I was trying to make there was, you have your position there on the Coral Sea, and that's fine, but other people may have a different position. How do you get to a middle ground if you're not even contemplating budging from your stated position?
IZ: There are some recreational fishers that are for the middle ground.
FW: Only the middle ground that is within the framework of the policy that you want. We're talking about the Coral Sea and how can you have middle ground when your policy on that is in concrete?
IZ: What I'm putting forward is that we will debate the merits of our proposal in the public domain. We believe our proposal has very strong public benefits and intergenerational benefits. We would love to have that conversation with the public and with stakeholders and our job is to convince people that our proposal has a great deal of merit. Now you'll never have everybody agreeing to it but we hope to get the majority of people to see that there's merit in the proposal.
FW: I guess what I'm having confusion with is that there is no middle ground and you are just sticking to your guns. So you wouldn't say have catch & release only or some other aspect, there's no option for those sort of things at all?
IZ: What we've found when we've spoken to some of the game fishing representatives is that they are unwilling to share information about where game fishing actually occurs. Now you can't debate a middle ground unless you have an informed debate, so really the onus is on the game fishing community. If that happened there would be some scope for discussion but at the moment there is no willingness to share that information.
FW: I don't know about those particular examples. Are you saying that if fishermen are willing to work together (with Pew) on this, you might compromise on your no take zones?
IZ: What I'm saying is that if that data was released, it would show that there is very little impact on their activities because the great majority of their activities happen in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. So if that came out publicly then the argument about compromise wouldn't be very strong.
FW: What other Australian marine protected areas is Pew interested in?
IZ: In the south-west bioregional marine planning area, environment groups in Western Australia and nationally are putting forward the case for large marine sanctuaries that would be fully protected as part of that bioregional marine plan.
FW: What papers, or research documents or reports has Pew used to justify the no fishing aspect of the Coral Sea plans?
IZ: We approached a range of scientists and experts last year and they contributed to a report and that report was put to the Federal Government and released publicly. The report argued the case that the Coral Sea had very significant environmental value and the socio-economic impact of the proposal was minimal. We are also increasingly looking at the economic implications. We are looking at a cost benefit analysis of the proposal, and the potential for the tourism industry to benefit. The tourism industry is reported to be worth up to $6 billion along the GBR coastline. It's a big employer and generates a lot of money for the regions down the coast. Obviously the Coral Sea won't generate nearly that amount of money because it's so far offshore, but there's certainly potential to generate more money from tourism than there is from fishing. This is the case in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.
FW: So to industrial commercial fishing: I don't think you'll find any recreational fisherman who supports that. Commercial fishing is probably the reason why our oceans are in the state they are in, but would you agree with the idea that recreational fishing in the Coral Sea has had no impact on the area whatsoever?
IZ: Well, unless I can get my hands on the information it's very unclear, it's not in the public domain. It's obviously less than long lining and less than trawling, but that doesn't mean there is no impact. Impact is always relative. We are not setting out to prove that recreational fishing is having a severe impact on the Coral Sea. That would be ridiculous. We are focusing on the positive reasons for having an area that is totally natural, that is set aside as a benchmark for science and a place where people can enjoy a natural environment.
FW: So it's nothing to do with environmental aspects of recreational fishing in any shape or form?
IZ: We're not setting out to condemn recreational fishing, what we're putting forward is a positive proposal.
FW: There's a disallowance motion (against Environment Minister Peter Garrett's move to create a Coral Sea Conservation Zone) by the National Party in the federal parliament at the moment. If (Garrett's proposal) is disallowed, what would Pew do then?
IZ: If it is disallowed, and it's not clear at all whether it will be, it's not going to affect the long-term achievement of our proposal. The Coral Sea Conservation Zone is a very big step but not an essential step to achieving a marine reserve. It is a very big step because it puts a spotlight on the Coral Sea; it raises awareness about the Coral Sea in the public's mind as an area that has environmental value. But it's not an essential step to achieve a long-term marine reserve. Having said that, we will certainly be pushing for (the National Party) motion to be rejected in the Senate.
FW: What feedback have you got from the Federal Government on your ideas about the Coral Sea?
IZ: The Federal Government has not given us any commitments; they are treating every stakeholder equitably. No one's getting any privileges. I've seen a lot of statements in the public domain that allege we've got tremendous access and that we're sitting there at the desk making the decisions - that is just fantasy. I might wish it was true but it isn't. We put our report to the Government, but we have not had any absolute commitment nor do we expect any commitment at this stage. We hope we get an absolute commitment at the end of the day but we also understand the law and understand the process and it would be unrealistic to get any commitments at this stage.
FW: What sort of timeframe are you looking at for establishment of a Coral Sea Marine Park?
IZ: The Coral Sea is part of the east bioregional planning process and we accept that, so the timeline is dictated by the timeline of that process. We understand that the Government is going to be releasing a draft east regional marine plan in June 2010 which will have a proposal for the Coral Sea in it and then towards the end of next year the Government will release a final plan. Having the final plan doesn't actually mean there will be a park in place, it's just a document. It doesn't have any statutory effect and so once that plan is approved then the park has to be put in place and under the legislation you have to go out for another round of public consultation. It may seem a bit ridiculous to the lay person to have a final approved plan and then go and consult the public on it again, but that's what the law says and that will likely happen in 2011. So we assume - if we are successful - by the end of 2011 that there will be a park in place. I must say, as you know there is an election scheduled for the end of 2010 so I'm sure that's going to get in the way of the timeline.
FW: Government, in my limited experience, seems to be about the art of compromise. You guys are pushing for (no fishing in the Coral Sea) and there are other people who say that sounds a bit extreme. It seems logical that the Government would look at those divergent views and come up with something like a multi-use park. Would Pew not be happy with something like that?
IZ: The answer is, no, we wouldn't be. What we've found, particularly while talking to the commercial sector, is that most of the tuna long liners are prepared to be bought out. If the Government makes a decision to fully protect the Coral Sea, there may be arguments over the financial issues and so on, but we have not found a major pushback about the concept of setting up a fully protected marine reserve from the tuna long liners. With the Coral Sea Fishery the majority of the active effort in that fishery feels the same way. The majority of the commercial fishers do not reject our proposal provided that they get a fair and reasonable package. From the recreational fishing side, it just comes back to the imperative of us having to argue the merits of our proposal and see what the Government does. We hope that we can convince not just the Government but the public; the Government listens to the general public, it is not going to make any special privileges for one stakeholder group. The government is going to want to know what the general public wants. So it's our responsibility to raise awareness of the Coral Sea, have conversations with the community and persuade people that our proposal has merit.
FW: What if the Government says, "we think these multi use parks are the way to go". Do you just throw your hands up and say "oh well".
IZ: If the Government makes that decision, then it's their decision.
FW: Do you think that's probably the way things will go, that they'll make a compromise?
IZ: I've been really surprised about how people have reacted to our proposal. Many people are inspired by something different and bold, big and visionary.
FW: Has (Environment Minister) Peter Garrett been inspired by your vision?
IZ: We don't know, he hasn't told us.
FW: But he's the one who will make the final decision?
IZ: He's going to listen to what the public wants.
FW: Are you a Pew employee?
IZ: Yes, I have been for two years.
FW: And you're obviously a very passionate environmentalist, are there any other things you've been involved with?
IZ: Yes, I've been working for about 20 years on environmental issues. I ran a campaign for WWF during the Great Barrier Reef rezoning and I worked on trawl reform in Qld.
FW: So mainly marine stuff?
IZ: Yes, when I started off I was dealing with a whole lot of issues but in recent years I've been focusing more and more on marine.
FW: Thanks for your time.
IZ: A pleasure.