The decision to open the area to the oil industry came despite almost 2000 individual emails and a protest rally by the Conservation Council of WA and the Margaret River Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation. You can add your voice to the ongoing campaign for sanctuaries, not oil, here.
The decision caused a massive backlash in the media, and both the Minister for Resources and the Minister for the Environment were forced to reiterate their support for a network of marine sanctuaries in the southwest, and clarify that this new lease didn’t yet lock in an oil industry off Margaret River.
So, the decision – whilst a setback for the Save Our Marine Life campaign for a science based network of marine sanctuaries – does not lock in an oil industry off the coast from Margaret River, nor does it entirely rule out inclusion of the lease area as a marine sanctuary if that is what the science requires – although it has made this much more difficult now.
Whilst a lot of people are clearly and rightly distressed that this lease is now sitting off the coast of Margaret River with the potential for an oil industry to start there any time, the lease is only at the initial stage, called an acreage release.
Effectively, this is an invitation from the Government for the oil industry to move into the area. The industry still needs to RSVP, and then that RSVP needs to be accepted by Government. It is a tendering process that last around a year.
In short, there is still time to act.
An oil industry would bring new threats to the southwest marine environment. Seismic exploration brings impacts to whales and dolphins, there is no debate about this, just about how much of an impact that is. Drilling brings noise impacts, smaller spills, habitat damage and the risk of a big spill. Also the purpose of exploration is clear, to find and exploit oil reserves.
Modelling by the Conservation Council of WA using a publically available CSIRO model shows that under real, measured, historical ocean conditions, there is a very high risk that a spill in the new lease would reach the beaches near Margaret River, and a very real risk that it could spread right up the west coast.
Modelling of an oil spill in the new oil lease just 83kms from Margaret River for a 80 day pollution event, similar to the Montara Oil spill that leaked for 10 weeks off Northwest WA in late 2009. A 40 day scenario shows a similar result.
Did you know that in the past 18 months the Federal Government has approved 78 new exploration and production projects, and no new marine parks. Whilst I don’t have an exact figure, somewhere around 20% of WA’s waters are covered in oil leases, and yet less than 1% is protected.
Since 1970, there has been an average of one major oil spill every 20months in Australia waters, from both shipping and the oil industry.
The marine life of the Southwest is unique. Up to 90% of the species found in the southern corner of our continent are found nowhere else on earth, a higher level of endemism (or unique marine life) than the Great Barrier Reef. Half the world’s species of whales and dolphins use the region.
Oil exploration comes on top of existing threats such as overfishing – seen through the demise of the ‘vulnerable five’, WA’s iconic reef fish, and the problems rocking WA’s rock lobster industry. It is increasingly harder to find large fish on many reefs in the southwest. The iconic dhufish, unique to Western Australia and prized by anglers, diners and divers alike, faces an uncertain future under current fishing pressure.
Western Australian’s and our unique marine life enjoy a relatively unspoilt marine environment, but threats are encroaching. We need an insurance that our unique marine life and the lifestyle and industries that depend upon it will be restored and maintained into the future. Marine sanctuaries provide that insurance.