Australia seeks to extend commercial fishing in protected waters

SYDNEY (NYTIMES) - Australia plans to allow fishing across 80 per cent of its protected maritime sanctuaries, the government said in a proposal that would vastly extend commercial activity in the world's largest marine-reserves network.

If the plan, backed by the government of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, is approved by Parliament, it would be the first time a nation has scaled back its regulations in protected maritime areas. The move could potentially set a precedent for other countries, including the United States, which are considering similar reversals.

More than one-third of Australia's waters - home to endangered species of sharks, turtles and whales - are protected by law.

Under the government's proposal, "the boundaries of Australian Marine Parks will not change," Josh Frydenberg, the environment minister, said in a statement. Instead, he said, the country would increase "the total area of the reserves open to fishing from 64 per cent to 80 per cent."

Much of the increased fishing would take place in the Coral Sea Reserve, one of the country's most stringently protected areas, where large-scale operations would be allowed for first time in at least five years. Most fishing is now prohibited in the park, off the continent's northeast coast, by a so-called no-take zone.

The area supports a large number of tuna, one of the planet's most lucrative and widely consumed fish and a staple in the diets of the region's predators, including white sharks.

The proposal to open the Coral Sea Reserve to fishing was quickly lauded by the seafood industry, which had lobbied the government for years.

David Ellis, chief executive of Tuna Australia, said in a statement that the new rules would be a boon for "jobs, regional economic stability, and seafood availability - especially to consumers that enjoy sushi and sashimi."

According to the government's most recent statistics, from 2015, seafood is a AUD$2.8 billion (S$3 billion) industry, with wild-caught fish making up 58 per cent of the market's value.

Environmentalists Friday argued that the government's plan would threaten species important to the ecosystem, injure the country's reputation as a global conservation leader and come at the cost of the country's tourism industry, which offers diving and whale watching.

"This is a huge step backwards for marine protection," said Richard Leck, head of oceans for WWF-Australia, an affiliate of the World Wildlife Fund.

"The Coral Sea is the Serengeti of the ocean," Leck said. "It's one of the few places in the world where big species - sharks, tuna and billfish - still roam in relative abundance." Describing the area as "iconic", Leck said increased fishing would add to "the risk of degradation."

One side of the Coral Sea Reserve abuts the Great Barrier Reef, one of the world's great natural wonders, at risk of death from rising sea temperatures.

In June, the Trump administration began soliciting comments as part of a similar plan to reduce the size of protected areas near Hawaii, California and American Samoa, potentially opening them to offshore drilling.

"Australia will trump even Donald Trump if it implements these cutbacks," said Darren Kindleysides, director of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. "All Australians will be justifiably distressed to know that science evidence supporting an increase in protections for marine life has been thrown out the window."