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Conservationists on the South Coast of NSW are worried about the future of their marine sanctuaries.

By Harry Sekulich,

Above: Bill Barker of Potato Point, Eurobodalla. Source: ABC News.

Conservationists on the South Coast of New South Wales are concerned about the future of their marine environment after the NSW government opened up five sanctuary zones in Batemans Marine Park to the public in December, 2019.

From the pristine shorelines of Potato Point in Eurobodalla, Bill Barker is worried that opening the sanctuary zones to recreational fishing will reverse 15 years of conservation efforts.

“Marine parks are important places where marine life can grow and flourish, and restore the habitat to something approaching its natural state after years of destruction caused by human activity and pollution,” said Mr Barker.

As a member of the Nature Coast Marine Group, a non-profit organisation located on the South Coast of NSW, Mr Barker believed that the group’s work in educating the community about marine conservation has been “completely wiped out”.

“We have programs in the local schools where we teach students about the role of sanctuary zones in protecting the marine environment’s biodiversity now and into the future,” said Mr Barker.

Jenny Edwards, secretary of the Nature Coast Marine Group, said that sanctuary zones have protected threatened species in the Batemans Marine Park.

“It’s not just fish we are worried about, there are many other organisms that are endangered,” she said.

“The grey nurse sharks, which are found in Montague Island, are now vulnerable to irresponsible fishing.”

Montague Island was one of the five sanctuary zones in Batemans Marine Park that the NSW government opened up for recreational fishing on December 12, 2019.

Mr Barker said sanctuary zones stopped over-fishing and were the only areas where fishing was banned in the entire Marine Park.

“These no-fishing zones made up less than 20% of the total Marine Park, and were placed in low-usage areas. So that left over 80% of the Marine Park open for fishing,” he said.

“In national parks, people have accepted that there are places you can and cannot hunt. The same idea needs to be applied to the marine environment.

“We can’t have endless amounts of fishing otherwise fish stocks won’t grow and their habitats will be destroyed.

“Sadly, some people think they can fish wherever they want, whenever they want.”

However, President of Narooma Sport and Game Fishing Club Les Waldock said that local fishers had felt “cheated” by the sanctuary zones’ previous bans on fishing.

“Sanctuary zones were introduced in places that were favourable and popular for fishing, and to the wrong effect,” he said.

“People never agreed with sanctuary zones.”

Mr Waldock said that many local fishers applauded the government’s “common sense” in its decision to lift the Marine Park’s fishing restrictions.

“Fishing is a top of the tree hobby in our community,” he said. “For some people, it’s a lifestyle.

“Opening these sanctuary zones means that recreational fishers can go back to some of their favourite fishing areas around the Eurobodalla Shire.

“There will also be fishermen coming in from all over NSW and the ACT to access these spots once things return to normal.

“It’s simply a win-win for the community.”

The member for Bega Andrew Constance said in an interview with Narooma News that he wanted to balance “recreational, tourism, and conservation values” across all marine parks in NSW.

Above Member for Bega, Andrew Constance and Minister for Agriculture, Adam Marshall with recreational fishers at Batemans Bay. Source: Andrew Constance MP.

Mr Constance also told reporters at Narooma News that the Batemans Marine Park’s sanctuary zones were introduced “without any sound ecological reason”.

The offices of the NSW Department of Primary Industries and Mr Constance were contacted for an interview. Both offices declined to comment.

Mr Barker said, “Mr Constance’s off the cuff decision ignored the government’s requirement for public consultation before they rolled back the sanctuary zones.

“Mr Constance decided he’d make a decision first and have a consultation afterwards.”

Ms Edwards said that no government agency has approached the Eurobodalla community for consultation since they opened up the sanctuary zones in December.

“The government is taking the back door approach and they are not speaking with the people in the community who are very worried about the environmental impact of this decision,” said Ms Edwards.

“The government has shown that they are quite happy to listen to a vocal minority of angry fishers, and ignore the conservation groups.”

Mr Waldock said that Mr Constance had a lot of pressure from recreational fishing groups, including his own, to open up the sanctuary zones to the public.

Environmental education officer for Eurobodalla Shire Council Bernadette Davis said that the coastal community is made up of residents who care about the marine environment.

“In the local Dhurga language, Eurobodalla means ‘land between waters’. So the people who live down here are passionate enough that they want to live here and enjoy the natural beauty and resources we have,” said Ms Davis.

As a community that “shares a love of the water”, Mr Barker believed the state government could have made a decision that involved all parties concerned about sanctuary zones in the Batemans Marine Park.

“Our organisation knows that for some people, recreational fishing is a spiritual part of their life,” he said.

“Fishers love being out in the water and in tune with the environment and we can all respect that.

“But Mr Constance has decided to ignore the conservation groups who are committed to protecting the Marine Park.

“This is nothing new. The state government has had a hostile attitude towards marine parks since they were elected into office back in 2011.

“This has created division in our community, and it is really disappointing.”

Ms Edwards said the Nature Coast Marine Group has reached out to Mr Constance to raise the group’s concerns about rolling back the sanctuary zones, but her organisation is “not holding out a lot of hope”.

“The coalition government has signalled they do not want to protect our sanctuary zones in the future,” she said.

“The mood in our organisation is very despondent.”

Batemans Marine Park is one of six marine protected areas across NSW formed in 2013 according to the NSW Department of Primary Industries website.

The Australian Marine Conservation Society reported that marine parks only make up 7% of the NSW coastline.

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