Australia Takes Barriers Off World's Greatest Reef

Pristine areas will be opened to fishing to see how long it takes stocks to replenish

His part of northeastern Australia seems blessed with more than its fair share of colors. The mountains above are a palette of incandescent blues and greens. The emerald sea below is home to flamboyantly colored tropical fish that dart about the nearby Great Barrier Reef.

On his recent tour of Australia, President Clinton chose this stunning backdrop to speak about the rather gray topic of reducing worldwide emissions of harmful greenhouse gases.

Yet even as he spoke, the Australian Parliament passed legislation that critics saw as an attack on the environment. The new laws would open up eight reefs, about 4 percent of the entire reef, previously zoned for no fishing, as part of a controversial experiment to measure how fast the reefs can recover.

The legislation has been condemned by environmentalists who say the experiment is inappropriate for the world's largest coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef, which extends some 1,200 miles along Australia's northeast coast, is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest natural treasures.

When these eight so-called "green" reefs are opened, an equivalent number of "blue," or fished, reefs will be closed during the five-year experiment.

Bruce Mapstone of the Cooperative Research Center for the Ecologically Sustainable Development of the Great Barrier Reef, project leader for the experiment, argues that the study is crucial to future management of the fishery. "It is important, in order for us to judge how much fishing should be allowed, to have a reference point of what an unfished population looks like to assess how much a fished population can withstand and remain viable," Dr. Mapstone says.

He says the best way to manage a fishery is to rotate areas that are closed. To be able to use this method, scientists need to know how long it takes for stock to regenerate to know how long the closures should be.

"Currently, it is assumed that if the catch rate goes down, the stock is going down," Mapstone says. "But this assumption has been proven not to work. This experiment will allow us to make judgments based on information, not assumptions."

Ian McPhail, chairman of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, charged with managing the reef, says the authority supports the experiment because it will provide vital information.

"What we want is the information to manage the marine park, which is not just a conservation area," Mr. McPhail says. "Our charter, established by an act of Parliament, provides for sustainable, multiple use, including reasonable research.

"We need a proper understanding of the sustainable levels of fishing before we have a collapse similar to other collapses that have occurred in fisheries around the world which were thought to be in a reasonable state."

He argues the park authority needs the data to "resist increased pressures on the fisheries" caused by rising demand in Asia, the major export destination.

Jim Thompson, a marine biologist with the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, says it is this export of vast quantities of live fish to Asia that has put the fisheries under strain.

"The economic pressure is tremendous," he says. "Recently, the Hong Kong-bound Sea Lion II was temporarily detained [in a Queensland port] for not having an export permit. The value of its cargo of live, brightly colored coral trout was estimated at $500,000 [Australian; US$415,000]. It is this trade which has created the urgency."

As a marine biologist, he recognizes the need for scientific management. "I do not oppose fisheries experiments, per se," Mr. Thompson says. "I do object, on ethical grounds, to work in protected [areas] only of benefit to extractive users of the reef."

In Australia's Senate, Democrats attempted, though failed, to block the legislation. The deputy leader and environmental spokeswoman for the Democrats, Sen. Meg Lees, is adamant the reef should be left alone.

"Experiments to deliberately and systematically reduce fish stocks in these protected areas of the reef are akin to [eliminating some] species from an area of native forests and then waiting to see if those species will find their way back," Senator Lees says.

Jeremy Tager, coordinator of the North Queensland Conservation Council, says the fight is not over. He says the park authority has seriously miscalculated the strength of public feeling against the experiment.

"They worked so hard to get the compliance and the help of the fishing industry that [the park authority] misjudged the extent to which people have been shocked by the opening up of the park," Mr. Tager says. "Most people in the cities have been astonished to discover that 95 percent of the Great Barrier Reef ... is not actually a national park."

The Wildlife Preservation Society's Thompson says the fisheries are already in danger of collapse.

"Opening any of the ... reefs that have historically been closed to fishing should be an act of last resort," Thompson says.

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