Esperance stakeholder groups are calling on the West Australian government to shed more light on a new marine park its planning on the community’s doorstep.
Last month, the McGowan government announced that as part of its promise to create five million hectares of new conservation areas by 2024, it would be moving forward with the proposed South Coast Marine Park.
Pending consultation, it could span from east of Bremer Bay through to the South Australian border.
The move has been welcomed by some of the regions traditional owners, who will be offered the chance to design and manage the park alongside government, rather than input being limited to just the consultation process.
But although other community groups will have the chance to give feedback at a series of information sessions kicking off next week, some have already asked government to justify why a marine park is warranted.
A call for clarity
A letter signed by the Shire of Esperance, the Esperance Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the Esperance Professional Fisherman’s Association, the Deep Sea Angling Club and Tourism Esperance was sent to the state environment minister in June.
It called for “more clarity about the scientific basis” of the proposed park.
The plan for the park is underpinned by a report written 27 years ago, called “A Representative Marine Reserve System for Western Australia”.
Also known as “the Wilson report”, it recommended protection but also highlighted the lack of scientific research available to justify that decision.
“With the limited information available the Working Group was unable to identify parts of the [Recherche] Archipelago which are particularly worthy of reservation,” the 1994 report stated.
In an effort to update the report and address community concern about its age, The WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) recently commissioned an updated review, known as “the Carijoa review”.
But it did little to satisfy concerns of some stakeholders, as it reiterated that areas should be protected without providing scientific justification as to why.
“Areas of the Recherche Archipelago that may be of higher conservation value were not able to be identified due to the lack of information,” it said.
Commercial fishing group worried
The lack of baseline data to underpin the proposal has concerned some stakeholders.
David Gray, the president of the Esperance Professional Fisherman’s Associated, said it showed the plan was “purely political”.
He pointed out there were already Commonwealth managed marine parks in the area — including the South-west Corner, Bremer, Eastern Recherche and Twilight Marine Parks — and said commercial operators were already subjected to strict fisheries management.
“We believe it’s a purely political decision to implement the parks at this stage,” he said.
But Chris Nutt, a marine conservation planner with DBCA, said although research about the area was sparse, there was no question about its ecological value.
“The south coast is understudied, definitely, but from the studies that have been undertaken we already know it’s a global biodiversity hotspot,” he said.
He also said the shallower, coastal state-managed marine park would complement the Commonwealth protected areas, as different species existed at different depths in the ocean.
Lengthy consultation process ahead
The state government has outlined an extensive consultation process, with information sessions in south coast communities beginning next week.
Later this month a Community Advisory Committee will be appointed, comprising of ministerially-appointed community members, who will work with government and other industry groups to come up with an indicative management plan.
Once that plan has been prepared, it will be released for public comment for at least three months.
But the process concerned Mr Gray, who said there was such little detail about the park available now it was difficult to express an opinion, but also feared there would not be enough time or political will to consider changes once the indicative plan was released.
Given that many commercial operators felt their livelihood could be on the line, Mr Gray said the state government should be upfront about where zoning may be and what would happen if management decisions made it too difficult for them to continue.
But DBCA’s Mr Nutt said it was important that zoning was informed by community feedback.
He said sanctuary zones – where all fishing is prohibited – would likely be put in diverse habitats of high ecological importance, while taking the interests of the community on board.
He acknowledged that commercial fishermen may feel vulnerable divulging where their best fishing spots are, out of fear government may then target them for sanctuaries, but said an element of trust was required.
“We would be appealing very strongly to the commercial fishers, the recreational fishers to provide that information so we can make the best choices.”
‘Country healthiest when managed by people’
Esperance-based elder, ranger and traditional owner Aunty Donna Beach is optimistic about the planned park.
It is a sentiment echoed by Peter Bednall, the CEO of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation, one of the traditional owner groups that will be offered the chance to design and manage the park.
He hopes that will help Aboriginal people fulfil custodianship obligations, while creating secure career paths and job opportunities.
“It formalises the relationship. It formalises the voice,” he said.
But he too had questions around zoning, about how the joint management arrangement would work and how opportunities for Aboriginal people would be secured.
“What the elders tell me is that country is at its healthiest when it’s being actively managed and enjoyed by people,” he said.
“[Nor do we want to see] anything that comes out of this that hinders the ability for the Aboriginal community to participate in economic development.”
‘Speculation’ over management arrangement
The joint management arrangement was another aspect that five stakeholder groups, including the Shire of Esperance, passed comment on in a letter to the environment minister in June.
“There is already speculation within the Esperance community about whether there may be areas within the SCMP that will be set aside exclusively for aboriginal cultural reasons, or may be the subject of a native title claim,” it said.
Esperance Shire President Ian Mickel said he did not believe the local Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation was consulted before the letter was penned.
But he said it was on government to provide clarity.
Brett Thorpe, the secretary of the Deep Sea Angling Club and signatory to the letter, said he did not see how a marine park could would attract more people to the region.
He also feared it would see recreational anglers locked out of areas, as they may be in the Buccaneer Archipelago, and hinder tourism.
Tourism Esperance and The Esperance Chamber of Commerce and Industry declined to comment.
But DBCA’s Mr Nutt argued there were many ways a marine park could help communities prosper.
“They bring a lot of branding, they bring a lot of research, they also will bring a lot of direct jobs to the region,” he said.
‘A fabulous opportunity’
Esperance resident Karen Milligan formed the Gary Johnson Foundation, named for her late husband, after he was killed by a shark bite in 2020.
Its main goal was to see a marine park created in the Recherche Archipelago, one of the areas set to come under the proposed South Coast Marine Park, and she is supportive of the state government’s recent moves to see that happen.
She dismissed calls to prove why a marine park is needed.
“That’s a standard blocking process used by people when they’re really a bit resistant to the idea,” she said.
She also had faith in the process the government was undertaking and believed a myriad of benefits would stem from it.
“I think we’re being offered a fabulous opportunity.”
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