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Are spending money on the wrong marine resources? While some $A100 million is being thrown at a new network of marine protected areas – a doubtful investment according to some commentators – the fabulous resources of our northern waters are being pillaged and are in a parlous state. The recent cancellation of a program to remove killer fishing nets from these waters suggests our funding priorities are flawed.

Out of control exploitation?

The tropical and semi-enclosed Arafura and Timor Seas are shared by Australia, Indonesia, Timor-Leste and Papua New Guinea. The region is extremely rich in living and non-living marine resources and is also an integral part of the Coral Triangle zone, considered to have the highest marine biodiversity in the world.

Australia’s exclusive economic zone extends from the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria up into the Timor and Arafura seas. In theory we have control over who can fish there and how they fish. However, while our northern coasts have only a sprinkling of humans, the coasts of the countries bordering these seas support very high populations.

The millions of coastal people in the region traditionally rely on the bounty of seas, those now within Australia’s exclusive economic zone included.

Colin Hunt

Illegal fishing of worrying dimensions is evident in the troubled state of northern snapper and shark stocks, with the latter also subject to shark finning.

Moreover, there is an unstated but likely large toll being taken on turtles, endangered species that we go to enormous lengths to conserve elsewhere.

Killer fishing nets

The thousands of killer fishing nets found in our northern waters and on beaches demonstrate just how out of control the exploitation of the Timor and Arafura Seas is.

Fishers cut away these “ghost” nets when they become entangled or when the fishers need to run from patrols. They also come adrift when sliced away by competing fishing vessels.

The nature of tides in the region means that the discarded nets eventually concentrate in the eastern and western inshore waters of the Gulf.

While the nets, in their hundreds of kilometres, are floating from the northern seas into the Gulf they do on-going and untold damage to marine life. Surface swimming fish and turtles are particularly likely to be trapped.

Australia’s Indigenous people hold deep cultural connections and responsibilities for marine resources and the impact ghost nets have on both wildlife and habitats is of particular concern to them.

The ghost net problem received recent publicity when the Indigenous rangers, who have collected 13,000 nets since 2004 and saved hundreds of turtles, had their funding discontinued by the Commonwealth.

The problem of ghost nets should be looked at as a symptom and a measure of the plunder of our northern marine environment by illegal fishing and overfishing, rather than as a separate and isolated issue.

Cooperation the key

Australia is already working with Timor-Leste and Indonesia to try to improve the livelihoods of their coastal people and thus reduce their dependency on already depleted fish stocks.

Regional cooperation has led to new coastal enterprises in Indonesia as alternatives to fishing. Tonny Wagey, ATSEF

This cooperative approach recognises that threats facing the Timor and Arafura Seas region are trans-boundary in nature. They can only be effectively addressed through cooperation of all four coastal nations.

Given the value of the resources at stake, the Australian aid going to this project could be well spent. And the ghost net data, recorded over time by the rangers, provides an ongoing measure of the cooperative project’s success or otherwise.

The Commonwealth could therefore take a new look at the Ghost Nets Australia project. It should be seen as an integral part of the effort to achieve better management of our northern marine resources and threatened species.

This article is reproduced with permission from The Conversation

The Author

Dr Colin Hunt has been researching and publishing on climate change, natural resource protection and ecological management for over 20 years. His research takes a multi-disciplinary approach with a strong focus on economics. He now has over 70 publications to his name, including 7 books.

A global approach has been taken in investigating the role of forestry and forests, and markets for sequestered carbon in mitigating climate change.

In Asia, prospects for mitigating greenhouse emissions in fast-growing economies has been published; as have the potential benefits and costs of reducing deforestation (REDD) and logging in PNG and Indonesia.

In Australia, a focus on research has been the prospects for meeting Australia’s greenhouse targets – given the relative costs of renewable energy and the lack of global markets for carbon. Implications of coal seam gas extraction have also been publicised.

He has wide work experience in South Asia, South-east Asia and the Pacific. For four years he was Principal Economist at Papua New Guinea’s National Research Institute; where he undertook research in forestry and fisheries. For four years he taught in the graduate programme in the National Centre for Development Studies at the Australian National University. He currently teaches the economics of sustainable fisheries part-time at the University of Queensland. His past fisheries management experience includes the position of Executive Director of the South Australian Fishing Industry Council (SAFIC).

His involvement in management of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area goes back 20 years, when he was a member of the stakeholder team that authored the Reef’s 25 Year Strategic Plan. His recent published research has investigated the benefits and costs of the Coral Sea Marine Reserve, and the conflict between economic development and marine and coastal ecosystems. See, for example: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308597X12002539.

In a voluntary capacity he has served as a director of Far North Queensland Natural Resource Management (now Terrain NRM) and a vice president of Trees for the Evelyn and Atherton Tablelands Inc. (TREAT).

He holds the degrees of Bachelor of Science and Master of Agricultural Economics, and his PhD is in social sciences. Since 2008 he has held the position of Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland.

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