Will opening Australia’s marine reserves to fishing wreck its ecosystem?

| 6th April 2018
Barrier Reef Fish

Image of fish swimming by the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

Australia recently opened one of its largest marine reserves in the hopes that increased fishing will stimulate the economy. However, human contact with this previously untouched reserve could greatly affect the health of the ecosystem and species in it, argues EMILY FOLK

Because it’s impossible to remove species from any environment without disrupting the food chain, it’s safe to say even sustainable practices will have some effect on the oceans and the ecosystems therein.

Human actions impact ecosystems around the world, in both positive and negative ways. Humans are ingenious. We’ve developed technologies that make our lives easier and more convenient, so we can live longer and more comfortably.

We’ve civilized and tamed most of the world and developed cities and food sources to feed the ever-growing global population. We’ve made some mistakes in the process, but we are looking for ways to do what we can to fix environmental issues and make our world more sustainable.

Despite the steps we’ve taken to undo the damage to the environment, we’ve made some mistakes we don’t know how to fix. As our population continues to increase, one of the issues facing humanity is the need for a dependable food supply.

Species protection

Fishing is an industry that creates jobs, income and a much-needed protein source for humans. However, there is only a finite supply of fish in the ocean, and overfishing and extinction are distinct possibilities for many species if we continue on the path we are on now.

Australia has one of the largest marine reserves in the world. These protected waters are home to an array of different plants and animals, including new species scientists haven’t even begun to classify yet.

Living in a reserve protects these species from harm from fishing and other environmental impacts. The reserve is also a place where scientists can study these amazing creatures and tourists can enjoy unspoiled natural beauty.

However, some sections of the marine reserve in Australia are in danger of environmental impacts because the government has opened them up to commercial and recreational fishing.

It’s been difficult to predict the extent of the damage this decision will have - so no one knows yet how many species are at risk - but it’s fair to say that there will be some changes.

This decision could not only endanger the fragile coral reef, but also all marine life, to the risks of more pollution and human interference.

Potential impacts

Even with sustainable fishing practices in place, fish populations will be affected. Commercial fishing has the greatest impact because the goal is to catch as many fish as possible to make a bigger profit.

There are also several different commercial fishing methods, and depending on the technique, they can impact more than the species they’re trying to catch.

This is often referred to as bycatch. Fishermen throw these undesirable species aside, and — more often than not — kill them during the fishing process.

Certain commercial fishing methods can also impact the ecosystem. Dragging lines and nets across the ocean floor can tear up coral beds and other sea plants, which are important food sources and homes for various species. This, in turn, impacts the entire food chain, potentially destroying habitat and populations of marine life.

Recreational fishing also has a huge impact on marine populations. Although the impacts aren’t as severe as those caused by commercial fishing, environmental damage still occurs.

These can include pollution fishermen leave behind, gas and oil leaks from boats and the taking of trophy fish — often apex predators in an ecosystem — which then upsets the natural balance between predators and prey.

Balancing economy

When the Australian government decided to open their protected waters to allow more commercial and recreational fishing, their goal was to boost local economies, create jobs and feed the growing population.

They plan to use sustainable fishing practices to maintain a balance between human needs and environmental concerns. They hope both humans and wildlife will thrive and benefit from the plan.

However, it remains to be seen whether this plan will succeed. Environmental groups and scientists are skeptical about the outcome and have voiced their concerns to the government. One of the biggest issues is how increased human activity and the removal of fish populations will impact the ecosystem.

Because it’s impossible to remove species from any environment without disrupting the food chain, it’s safe to say even sustainable practices will have some effect on the oceans and the ecosystems therein. The type of fishing techniques allowed in the area will also affect the environment.

As the human population continues to increase, so will our need for food, and we will exploit all the resources we need to ensure our survival.

Finding a balance between sustainable practices and economic needs may help reduce the damage we do to the environment, but it may also cause irreversible harm. Time is the only way to know for sure whether we are doing a good job or not. If we aren’t, it may be too late to undo the damage.

This Author

Emily Folk is a conservation and sustainability writer and the editor of Conservation Folks.

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