Net advantage: securing our fisheries management

7 Oct 2014

This report argues that Australian commercial fisheries can gain a global competitive edge by embracing the benefits of marine reserves.


The world’s oceans are at risk of collapse, with significant implications for fishing industries, food security and marine biodiversity. Historically, overfishing has been the main threat to global fish stocks. This is now being exacerbated by the risks of climate change, pollution and pests.

Yet with risk comes opportunity. Countries with well-managed fish stocks, supported by healthy marine ecosystems, will be better placed to tap rapidly growing markets for sustainably certified seafood. In the long‑term, they should also benefit from stronger commercial fishing industries.

This report finds that Australia can gain a global competitive edge by embracing the benefits of marine reserves. The United Nations and Global Ocean Commission have recommended 10 to 30 per cent of the world’s oceans be placed in marine protected areas (MPAs).

Implementation of the Commonwealth Marine Reserves Network (CMRN) of MPAs would establish Australia as a world leader in marine protection. This policy has bipartisan support, but implementation has been suspended pending a review by the current Commonwealth Government.

This report analyses the effects of marine reserves on the economic sustainability of Australia’s commercial fishing industry. For the purpose of this report, ‘marine reserves’ refer to those areas within MPAs such as the Marine National Park Zones within the CMRN (see Figure 1 below). These are ‘no-take’ zones: highly protected areas where no fishing is allowed at all.

The focus of this report is primarily on the relationship of these marine reserves to commercial fisheries in Commonwealth waters. Examples are also drawn from overseas and State waters. This is not to diminish marine reserves’ ecological and biological importance. CPD notes the 1998 policy guidelines specified biodiversity conservation as the primary purpose of MPAs.[i] There are also broader issues of intergenerational equity to consider. However, this report focuses on points where the economic and ecological arguments intersect: fisheries are central to that debate.   


Marine reserves deliver economic, reputational and ecosystem benefits that can provide a competitive advantage for Australia's commercial fisheries. This includes a potential marketing edge, and insurance against vulnerability to rising fuel costs and unpredictable prices.

Rapid growth in sustainably certified seafood should provide an opportunity to improve the margins of Australian commercial fisheries. Given the variety and quality of Australian seafood, sustainably certified products are an increasingly feasible sector of the market for commercial fisheries to target.

  • Sustainably certified seafood is a growing global market. Worldwide, the number of fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) jumped more than four-fold over the four years to 2012. Last year there was a 35 per cent increase in MSC labelled products globally.
  • Leading Australian seafood businesses are supporting sustainable certification. The World Wildlife Fund has partnered with Blackmores, Coles, John West and Tassal to help them shift to responsibly sourced seafood and fish oil products.
  • Australian retailers including Woolworths, Coles and Aldi have made the MSC certification central to their sustainable seafood sourcing policy, with Woolworths aiming to have all of their wild-catch seafood MSC certified.

Marine reserves can make it easier for commercial fisheries to gain and maintain sustainability certification. MSC performance indicators assess how appropriate fisheries management and its outcomes are for ensuring the long-term sustainability of fisheries and the ecosystems that support them. Benefits generated by MPAs can assist in improving scores, and may make it easier to retain certification even if standards rise over time.

  • Marine reserves provide key information to help commercial fisheries get their management strategies right, and demonstrate this to the MSC.
  • Marine reserves provide a buffer that may help ecosystems recover from shocks and fisheries to maintain scores against MSC performance indicators. This is important because even the best fisheries management settings can be inadequate in the face of unforseen risks.

Marine reserves can increase fish stock populations in surrounding areas, improving the economics of commercial fisheries. Spill-overs occur when fish leave marine reserves. This increases fish stock populations in surrounding areas. Spill-overs can benefit commercial fishers by increasing the amount caught for the same level of effort, and by enabling harvests of larger and more highly valued fish.

  • Global comparison shows that in some cases the catch per unit of effort can increase by up to 66 per cent near ‘no-take’ zones within MPAs, within five years of protection.
  • Global examples show fisher income can be as much as 135 per cent higher near ‘no-take’ zones within MPAs in some cases, compared to open access areas.

Marine reserves provide long-term insurance against population crashes. The increased diversity and density of marine species improves the overall health and resilience of marine ecosystems. This allows ecosystems to support larger and more stable populations of commercial fish stocks, insuring against risks – such as climate change, pollution and pests – that are hard to address with fisheries management tools.

  • Based on cross-country reviews, on average ‘no-take’ zones see an increase in the number of species by 21 per cent, size of organisms by 28 per cent, organism density by 166 per cent and biomass by 446 per cent – when compared to nearby unprotected areas, or the same areas before protection.
  • International evidence shows that under proper management, ‘no-take’ zones within MPAs have twice as many large fish species, five times more large fish biomass, and 14 times more shark biomass on average than fished areas.


This report recommends the current review of the CMRN be used to establish marine reserves that will deliver benefits for the long-term.

1.Ensure the design of marine reserves is informed by the latest science. MPAs are a conservative investment in Australia’s key marine assets. Adequately sized and appropriately located ‘no-take’ zones will enable increasing dividends to flow from MPAs in the future. This review should start by accepting that scientific consensus on the benefits of MPAs dates back to 2001. It should also focus on the latest scientific evidence for designing effective ‘no-take’ zones, and consider the possibility that ecological risks will increase over time.

2.Find common ground between stakeholders by focusing on MPA benefits. Well-planned marine protection generates a range of economic benefits, in addition to ecological benefits. To increase community acceptance of final decisions on zoning, the Bioregional Advisory Panels should seek to find common ground between stakeholders. Attention should be directed to the long-term benefits of well-designed MPAs to all stakeholders, rather than on short-term costs.

3.Set aside sufficient funding for structural adjustment and ongoing management. Australia has learned from previous adjustment packages, and now has a more rational policy and rigorous assessment process for determining and targeting adjustment funding. However, there may be opportunities to achieve a double dividend from adjustment funding by identifying opportunities to buy out excess commercial fishing fleet capacity. To ensure MPAs are effective, 15 years of funding sufficient for ongoing management should be placed in a trust.

Getting this right is an opportunity we do not want to miss. Chopping and changing policy on marine protection will short-change all Australians, and deny future generations the chance to enjoy the same benefits from marine assets as their parents and grandparents.

[i] Australian and New Zealand Environmental and Conservation Council Taskforce, “Guidelines for Establishing the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas”, Environment Australia, Canberra, December 1998, available at

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