Northern Spencer Gulf Marine Parks – Sanctuary zones, harbour expansions & mineral exports

A period of public comment closed today, marking the latest milestone in the decade-long Marine Parks saga in South Australia. In this instance, the draft marine park zoning and management plans were laid on the table, including the two Marine Parks proposed for Northern Spencer Gulf- the place we call Cuttlefish Country. In principal, these marine parks are designed to protect the environmental values of our beloved region, but the devil lies in the detail and under close scrutiny these parks’ promises quickly lose their lustre. While sanctuary zones are to be established in both Upper Spencer Gulf and Franklin Harbor parks, a proliferation of ‘Special Purpose Zones’ represents the age-old interests of economic growth and the end result, as we’ve discussed previously is compromise at the environment’s expense.

A cuttlefish expresses his concern - artwork by Heather LeMay

A cuttlefish expresses his concern – art by Heather LeMay

To whom it may concern,

I am writing to express my great disappointment at the compromises being made by the current proposals for marine park zoning in Northern Spencer Gulf. I have criticisms to make of both park management plans in the region: the Upper Spencer Gulf Marine Park (10) and the Franklin Harbor Marine Park (9). I will begin with Park 10.

As a documentary filmmaker who has now worked for several years on the forthcoming feature ‘Cuttlefish Country’ I am well aware of the industrial history of the Northern Spencer Gulf, and the State’s eagerness to build upon this and revive the region as a hub for mining, oil and gas and heavy industry. While I accept there are economic drivers for this, to facilitate this expansion on the fringes of a network of unique and biodiverse marine ecosystems which harbor such unique natural spectacles as the Giant Australian Cuttlefish aggregation is unconscionable. It is my view that this park is, just like the State’s Strategic Plan target of ‘No Species Loss, designed to fail.

In the park’s executive summary, existing impacts are acknowledged:

‘some habitats have been significantly modified, several introduced pests have become established, and water and/or sediment quality has been impacted by the discharge of industrial or urban pollutants’ along with the promise of ‘considerable further development proposed within the park ‘.

Where is the marine park’s management plan for gradually reducing the waste inputs of industry into the park system? Inputs from Onesteel and Nyrstar are significant and ongoing. Will penalties be greater for industry shown to be adversely impacting the ecology of a marine park? In my opinion this should be the case.

Each new or expanded industrial activity will have freight, shipping and waste management issues to address, which is bound to impact to some extent on the conservation value of the marine park. It is glaringly obvious throughout the documentation for this park that the State’s primary priority is facilitating resource sector expansion. This is reflected in the rather unsubtle juxtaposition of Special Purpose Areas ‘overlaying all sanctuary and habitat protection zones within the park, to provide for significant economic development.’ Why has no search been undertaken for the optimal location of future export shipping facilities, to minimize ecological risk and maximize economic benefits?

Sanctuary Zones & Special Purpose Zones in Upper Spencer Gulf

Sanctuary Zones & Special Purpose Zones in Upper Spencer Gulf

Fundamentally, what are these marine parks for? Are they to provide certainty to the future health of the marine environment, or to provide certainty to mining and industrial sectors, that their economic interests will not be adversely affected? This glaring conflict of interest is being handled very poorly, and will be duly reflected in the film ‘Cuttlefish Country’ when it is released worldwide in 2013.

As someone who has spent a lot of time on and beneath the waters of Upper Spencer Gulf, the hypocrisy in these management plan documents hurts. To suggest that the establishment of sanctuary zones within the park will create an ‘overall shift towards a more natural ecosystem’ is absolute lunacy, when you consider the forecast increase in shipping activity.

‘Currently there are about 360 vessel movements per year and this is expected to increase to over 1,000 movements by 2020.’

As the bathymetric charts of these waters clearly demonstrate, shipping channels in the park are highly constrained, and in order to facilitate such an increase in shipping, dredging will be necessary. As huge propellers on Cape-sized vessels with little draft churn up the sea-bed and surf over shoals, they will be mobilizing heavy metals deposited in the sediment from over a century of metal smelting in the region.

In short, it is my firm belief that the park cannot honestly meet its basic goals of protecting habitat and restoring abundance of depleted fish stocks and at the same time, meet this projected shipping target. Has any work on the impact of massively increased export shipping been done, to demonstrate that any impact via increased turbidity, mobilization of metals, introduction of invasive species from foreign waters will be somehow acceptable?

So what should we be doing strategically? Instead of keeping things flexible, and compromising this park in the process, the State must identify alternative port locations where deep water is more accessible, where dredging is unnecessary, and then redirect industrial proposals to such places. Places which don’t offer precious, limited habitat to incredible breeding aggregations like that of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish. Superb alternative locations for export shipping direct from the West Coast exist, such a Point Drummond, and another exists further to the south within Spencer Gulf at Cape Hardy. Yet the Government belligerently persists with plans to expand Port Bonython, site multiple desalination plants (BHP Billiton at Point Lowly, Port Germein, Arafura’s treatment plant, Onesteel) and expand existing harbors at Whyalla and Port Pirie. Such compromises are avoidable, and therefore, unacceptable.

The Giant Australian Cuttlefish performs its vanishing act

The Giant Australian Cuttlefish performs its vanishing act

So, on a species specific level, what is the park’s plan for the preservation of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish? The plan states that the sanctuary zone designed to protect the Giant Australian cuttlefish near Point Lowly ‘should have a positive effect on the future protection of the critical reef habitat, but it is unlikely to arrest the long-term decline in cuttlefish abundance’. This sounds like an acceptance of defeat, or would their extinction be heralded as welcome news? Considering the Minister for Fisheries’ refusal to grant this distinct population protection under the Fisheries Act, and in spite of its decline from hundreds of thousands to less than ten thousand in a handful of years, anyone would be forgiven for thinking the State was conspiring against the cuttlefish. Actually, we’re drowning in evidence to support this proposition.

For example: the Environmental Protection Authority has thus far failed to prosecute Santos, who have been contaminating groundwater with hydrocarbons at their Port Bonython site since at least 2008. I have also heard from the EPA directly that the pollution reached the intertidal zone, and therefore presumably, has entered the waters off Stony and Black Point. Water quality data for the area since 2008 is conspicuously absent from the EPA’s website. With such a track record of clear and present indifference for the preservation of the Upper Spencer Gulf’s environment, and the obvious protection of business interests, how confident should the public feel about these ‘habitat protection’ and ‘sanctuary’ zones being marked for future ‘special purpose’ desecration? Also, why does Appendix 3 ‘List of Parties Consulted’ include no representatives from conservation or environmental groups? Are environmentalists somehow not eligible stakeholders in the marine park’s planning process?

This next statement tells all:

‘There is potential for congestion in this area if the various planned inland mining developments take place, and access to suitable anchoring grounds and transhipment points is critical. However, no significant impacts on shipping activities arising from the zoning in this park expected, which is consistent with Government policy commitments.’

Meanwhile, the Franklin Harbour Marine Park has been obliging of IronClad’s desire to export iron ore through the park. Similarly, the Government’s only concern here appears to be interruption to the passenger ferry service, not impacts to habitat or protected species. Why the transshipment zones have to be within the Marine Park, and at their nearest, just 700 metres from a sanctuary zone is beyond me. At least the zones don’t overlap exactly though, as they do in Upper Spencer Gulf’s park!

Lucky Bay Iron Ore Transhipping and adjacent Marine Park sanctuary zones

Lucky Bay Iron Ore Transhipping and nearest adjacent Marine Park sanctuary zones

It is clear from these measures to prioritise economic development in Northern Spencer Gulf that our State’s decision making is at its heart cold, bureaucratic and pro-business. Evidence to support this is abundant, and heart-breaking. The Upper Spencer Gulf marine park’s proposed double life as a heavy industry hub and freight corridor is a farce, and my fear is that the ‘scientific rationale underpinning marine protected areas’ is being directly undermined by the resources sector and a State government desperate for revenue… at any environmental cost.



Dan Monceaux is a South Australian documentary filmmaker and the director of Cuttlefish Country.

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