Opinion piece: Richard Costin
Most Australians would have welcomed the announcement for the establishment of the Camden Sound Marine Park as a significant step forward for marine protection along the Kimberley coast. At first glance the marine park appears to recognise the importance of Camden Sound for migrating humpback whales. I have spent countless hours watching, filming and recording the wonders of the whales and marine environment in Camden Sound. I have dived around Montgomery reef and Champagny island so i was delighted to hear that both these areas were to become special sanctuary areas within the park. This area of the Kimberley coast is special and deserves the highest level of protection.
Once the initial euphoria wore off I decided to reconsider the announcement in a broader regional context. The two main question at the back of my mind required careful consideration:
- Would the Camden Sound whale sanctuary provide significant long term protection for migrating humpback whales?
- and how would the activities within the park zones affect the integrity of the park?
The Camden Sound Marine Park will cover a significant area of around 7000 square kilometres. This includes 1670 square kilometres for whale conservation, around 1400 square kilometres for the Montgomery Reef and Champagny Island sanctuary zones and 3457 square kilometres as general use zones.
The whale conservation area needs to be considered in the context of the distribution of the calving areas right along the kimberley coast, and in the context of the proposed Commonwealth Kimberley Marine Reserves in light of what protection that may provide the Kimberley’s Humpback whales. The main calving and resting grounds for Humpback whales in Kimberley waters extend from Eco Beach, south of Broome, to Camden Sound, approximately 400 kilometres north of Broome. The main calving grounds cover an area of approximately 60,000 square kilometres. The Camden Sound whale sanctuary will cover an area of 1670 square kilometres, or only about 3% of the calving grounds. Independent surveys conducted by Kimberley Whale Watching over the past 5 years indicate that the highest concentration of whales on the kimberley coast occurs between Cape Leveque and Broome during the peak migration period in July, August and September. This is outside the Camden Sound whale sanctuary zone.
Two Commonwealth Marine National Parks [iucn 2] are proposed for the Kimberley Coast. The smaller park will cover an area of 350 square kilometres adjacent to the western boundary of the Camden Sound Marine Park. The larger park covers an area of 7,555 square kilometres and is a very important calving, breeding, feeding and resting area for humpback whales. The proposed national parks should be considered as a whale sanctuary areas in line with the whale conservation area in Camden Sound.
Federal minister for the Environment, Tony Burke, is also proposing to establish a Kimberley multiple use reserve in Commonwealth waters that will cover an area of around 54,886 square kilometres. This includes an important congregation area between Adele island and the Lacepede Islands that should be regarded as critical habitat for the whales. This multiple use zone is being opened up for oil and gas exploration and development and should be viewed as an industrial park and not a marine park.
Neither Colin Barnett nor Tony Burke are proposing to establish marine protected area in State or Commonwealth waters between the Lacepede Islands and Broome. This is perhaps the highest density humpback whale area on the kimberley coast. This area is being left open for the development of the nearshore oil and gas industry and the establishment of one of the biggest oil and gas processing facilities in the world. The establishment of this industrial precinct in the middle of one of the main calving, breeding and resting areas for the largest population of humpback whales in the world is outrageous.
So will the 1,670 square kilometre whale sanctuary in camden sound provide adequate protection for Kimberley whales in the face of a massive industrial expansion through their calving grounds? The answer to that is emphatically NO.
My euphoria from the initial announcement about Camden Sound has completely evaporated and been replaced with a real sense of unease.That sense of unease increases when you consider the general use zones that have been proposed for Camden Sound. These general use zones will cover an area of 3,457 square kilometres, or 49 % of the marine park. The Western shoals general use zone covers an area of 2,119 square kilometres to the west of and adjoining the whale conservation area and the Montgomery Reef Sanctuary Zone. This has been left open for oil and gas exploration and development, mining, trawling and drift net fishing. The Joint Authority Northern Shark Fishery is allowed to use 2 kilometre gill nets with an 18 metre drop. This is an important calving, resting and feeding area for humpback whales.
The Hall Point general use zone is around 282 square kilometres and is an important transit route for humpback whales moving between Collier Bay and Camden Sound. Fortescue Metals holds the mining tenements along the eastern shore. This area has been left open for mining, oil and gas exploration and development and commercial fishing. The Saint George Basin General Use Zone is considered to be one of the most ecologically significant estuarine environments in the kimberley, with one of the most important mangrove systems in Australia, and in fact the world. This has been left open for oil and gas development, mining and commercial fishing. The general use areas cover 49% of the marine park and have been left open for industrial development. These areas should not be considered as a marine park.
The special purpose Kuri Bay Pearling Zone covers an area of around 577 square kilometres. Pearling operations commenced in Camden Sound at Kuri Bay in 1956. By 1973 Kuri Bay produced 60 % of the world’s large white south sea pearls. The pearl leases are now held by Paspaley Pearling. These operations rely on maintaining a healthy marine environment and are compatible with the marine park. There is some disturbance to cows and calves that are resting and calving around Byam Martin and Augustus island.
The announcement of the establishment of the Camden sound marine park by Collin Barnett should be treated with some scepticism. There is no doubt that the announcement is politically motivated and designed to deflect attention from the proposed industrial development at James Price Point. Colin Barnett,Tony Burke, the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation and the Environmental Protection Authority have been made fully aware of the importance of the coastal waters between Broome and Cape Leveque for migrating humpback whales. This includes the waters adjacent to James Price point.
At best, the whale conservation area in the Camden Sound Marine park represents around 3% of the calving grounds along the Kimberley coast. The zoning for the Camden Sound Marine Park and the proposed commonwealth marine parks reflects the extraordinary influence the mining and oil and gas industry, the state minister for mines and Petroleum Norman Moore, and the Federal minister for resources Martin Ferguson have over the marine planning process in both state and commonwealth waters. The zoning also reflects the weakness of our environmental ministers at law to provide long term effective protection for the kimberley marine environment.
Colin Barnett, Norman Moore and Martin Ferguson’s powers at law to regulate and resist the mining and petroleum industry once they have handed over control of our resources through the allocation of mining tenements is also limited. I hope they all take the time to reflect on the risks associated with offshore oil and gas industry and the consequences of the Montara and Deep Water Horizon oil rig disasters.
The Camden Sound Marine park will have an uncertain future if the mining and oil and gas industry are allowed to operate in or a round the park. The establishment of the park will no doubt provide a political quick fix as a mining offset for the establishment of an industrial precinct at James Price Point. If Colin Barnett is serious about establishing a network of marine parks along the Kimberley coast, he may need to enact new legislation that guarantees long term protection and excludes industrial fishing and oil and gas development. Alarm bells are ringing that the Camden Sound Marine Park and the proposed commonwealth multiple use reserves will become the new green wash for the offshore oil and gas industry.
The release of petroleum tenements in the Rowley Sub basin around the iconic Rowley Shoals Marine parks clearly demonstrates that Martin Fergusson is hell bent on opening up the kimberley coast to the oil and gas industry. Woodside and Shell are about to embark on a massive exploration program around the Rowley Shoals in an area that is also being proposed by Tony Burke as a Commonwealth marine reserve. Calls by Senator Bob Brown to strengthen our environment laws have come at a good time. The decision by Woodside and Shell not to refer their Rowley Shoals seismic testing programme to Tony Burke’s office for assessment under the environmental protection and biodiversity conservation act clearly demonstrates that self regulation does not work. The mining industry and oil and gas industry are now lobbying to remove Commonwealth scrutiny under the EPBC ACT. They are proposing that the responsibility for environmental approvals are now handed back to the States. The Prime Minister Julia Gillard is set to comply with their wishes.
The establisment of the Camden Sound Marine park is unlikely to provide adequate protection for the west coast population of humpback whales and their calving grounds in Kimberley waters.The rapid expansion of the oil and gas industry along the Kimberley coast coupled with a weakening of our environmental laws should be viewed as a major threat to the whales and the marine environment along the Kimberley coast.