20 May 2021


When vast sections of the Coral Sea Marine Park were opened up to commercial fishing in 2018 it was the largest downgrading of a protected area in history, according to a new study.

The paper, published in Marine Policy journal, says the downgrading of the Coral Sea Marine Park impacted more than 740,000 square kilometres, three quarters of the park’s total area.

It didn’t end there with Australia revealed by the research to be a global hotspot for the downgrading of marine protected areas.

Legal changes that temper, reduce, or eliminate protected areas are known as protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) events.

Spatial distribution of enacted and proposed PADDD events in marine protected areas globally= by August 2020
© Marine Policy journal

At least six countries have enacted legal rollbacks to marine protected areas totalling an area of about 1.2 million square kilometres, about the size of South Africa.

The vast majority occurred in Australia in 2018 when the Federal government wound back protection in more than 1 million square kilometres, 31% of the total Australian Marine Protected Area estate.

Much of this area was opened up to industrial-scale fishing operations.

There were also upgrades to protection as compensatory offsets in Australia, with increased protection in just over 500,000 square kilometres, or 15%, of the total Australian MPA estate.

The end result is that about three quarters of Australia’s marine protected areas are open to fishing. However, a survey last year showed the vast majority are unaware of this, wrongly believing that Australia's MPA system restricts fishing.

Renee Albrecht, currently with Defenders of Wildlife and previously the University of California, Santa Barbara, is lead author of the study and Dr Martin Taylor, conservation scientist with the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, is a co-author.

Ms Albrecht said the research demonstrates that legal rollbacks to marine protected areas are more widespread than previously known.

“Establishing marine protected areas is one of the best strategies for conserving the world's ocean. While the intent of marine protected areas is to safeguard the ocean and its biodiversity in perpetuity, our research shows widespread evidence of legal rollbacks - especially downgrading - to marine protected areas,” Ms Albrecht said.

“These legal changes can undermine the conservation goals of marine protected areas when they newly allow or expand activities that are incompatible with biodiversity protection like mining and commercial fishing."

"Our research shows that future marine conservation efforts will need to focus not only on the establishment of new marine protected areas, but also on the maintenance of existing protections,” she said.

The global community has an opportunity to improve the durability of protected areas and increase transparency associated with legal rollbacks through the Convention on Biological Diversity's post-2020 framework to be agreed in Kunming, China this October.

Important meetings are underway to prepare for October. At these gatherings, many countries have expressed their support for the goal of protecting at least 30% of world’s land and ocean by 2030.

The Australian Government joined the Global Oceans Alliance in February this year which is calling for formal protection of 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030.

WWF-Australia Head of Oceans Richard Leck welcomes Australia’s membership of the Alliance and the recent commitment to new marine parks in Christmas Island and Cocos Keeling islands.

However, he said it’s vital that Australia learns from the past and that the implementation of new marine protected areas is driven by robust scientific integrity, not political expediency.

“In 2018, Australia became a global hotspot for the downgrading of marine parks, responsible for the single worst downgrading event the world has ever seen,” Mr Leck said.

“It’s time for the Australian government to start rebuilding our reputation. We call on the Australian Government to further step up its diplomatic, scientific and financial support for the 30x30 target on both oceans and land,” he said.

Spatial patterns of PADDD events associated with the 2018 Australian Systemic Downgrade
© Marine Policy journal

Renee Albrecht, Carly N. Cook, Olive Andrews, Kelsey E. Roberts, Martin F.J. Taylor, Michael B. Mascia, Rachel E. Golden Kroner, Protected area downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement (PADDD) in marine protected areas, Marine Policy, Volume 129, 2021, 104437, ISSN 0308-597X, Science Direct