Lessons Ignored from Catastrophic Oil Spills

Opinion piece published in The West Australian today.

By Tim Nicol

 (Tim Nicol is the Marine Campaign Coordinator for Conservation Council of WA and Save Our Marine Life.  Save Our Marine Life is an alliance of ten major conservation groups working towards marine protection in WA’s southwest)

 The Gulf of Mexico oil spill is proving to be one of those environmental events which could result in significant changes to the way we view the oil and gas industry and the industrialization of our oceans.

 Just like the Exxon Valdez spill reformed oil tanker shipping and the horrifying Bhopal toxic disaster affected the chemical industry, a major shift in community confidence and potentially enormous regulatory changes could impact the petroleum industry operating in America, including seeing more areas protected from drilling. In Australia however, it’s been a different story.

 Yesterday, we say Tony Abbott back away from the regional marine planning process designed to increase the protection afforded to Australia’s oceans. Ironically, the process is an initiative of the previous coalition Government.  The move was particularly surprising given recent polling showing eight-in-ten Western Australian voters support high levels of marine protection.

 Labor is also guilty of neglect of our oceans in the face of the oil industry. Late last year we witnessed our own oil catastrophe, the explosive blow out on the Montara rig off the Kimberley coast, which then pumped oil into our seas for more than 10 weeks. As we wait for the findings of the inquiry into the Australian spill and we watch the devastation in the Gulf unfold, we have seen the Australian Government open new oil drilling leases, including in the Kimberley and in an area under consideration for protection offshore from Margaret River.

 The majestic Kimberley coastline is awash with life. A virtual marine superhighway for migratory species, the area is home to a wide array of sea turtles, fish, seabirds and whales, including 28,000 humpbacks who arrive at this time every year to calve. It’s hard to imagine a worse place for an oil spill.

 Except perhaps Margaret River. The clean beaches and oceans of the southwest are home to one third of the world’s whale and dolphin species, including one of Australia’s two known feeding grounds for the world’s largest whale, the Blue Whale, in the Perth Canyon offshore from Perth.  Up to 90% of the marine life in the region is unique, a higher level of unique marine life that the Great Barrier Reef.

 Yet last spring, countless barrels of oil poured into the Timor Sea off Australia’s Kimberley coast. Satellite images show the Montara spill eventually spread over 6000 square kilometers, fishermen as far away as Indonesia reported finding contaminated fish and it’s still uncertain how much oil was actually released into the environment.

 Offshore from Margaret River, the Government has invited the oil industry in to drill in an area even deeper and more remote than the site of the disastrous US spill.

 We can no longer afford to ignore the devastating reality of the risks involved in quenching our national thirst for oil and gas. 

 Leading marine scientists from around the globe are in agreement about the need to create a network of large sanctuaries in areas that marine life rely on for feeding and breeding. The more we separate offshore drilling from our most critical marine ecosystems the more virtual insurance the public receives in protecting valuable assets.

 Since the Kimberley oil spill, 31 new oil and gas lease areas have been opened up by the Australian Government, but nothing has been done to safeguard our marine life and coastal communities.

 It’s time to take the same sort of precautionary action being considered in the United States here, as well. Putting in place a network of large marine sanctuaries in Australian waters would provide a prudent investment in the future health of our nation’s unique marine life.



Some media comment on the first big marine sanctuaries announcements of this Federal Election.  Unfortunately what appears to be the Coalition going for deal with an anti-marine parks Fishing Party in a couple of marginal seats in Queensland could backfire given the overwhelming support for increased marine protection around the rest of Australia… Time will tell…


 Today’s announcement that a Coalition Government would suspend planning for marine sanctuaries around Australia shows that Tony Abbott is out of touch with coastal loving Western Australians, the Conservation Council of WA and Wilderness Society said today.

 Conservation Council of WA and Wilderness Society as part of the Save Our Marine Life alliance have been campaigning in the Southwest for almost two years and have found high levels of support in the community for increased marine protection.

 “Tony Abbot is out of touch with Western Australians on this issue. We are being sold short by policy developed on the East Coast not respecting our unique situation in Western Australia. We need action, not more delays on protecting our unique marine life,” said Conservation Council Marine Coordinator Tim Nicol.

 “Polling last week in WA showed that 8-in-ten WA voters support increasing protection levels from less than 1% to high levels of marine protection,”

 “A recent independent Economic Report from the Allen Consulting Group1 showed that marine sanctuaries provide big economic opportunities for regional WA, for example helping to make the southwest a tourism icon and underpinning growth in the southwest tourism industry to $55m million per year.”

 Currently less than 1% of WA’s waters are protected. Declining fish stocks have resulted in two month seasonal fishing closures for the ‘vulnerable five’ reef fish. Overfishing is implicated in the recent upheavals in the rock lobster industry.

 “There is science consensus that marine sanctuaries protect marine life and can help to restore damaged fisheries,” said Dr Jill StJohn from The Wilderness Society WA.

 Western Australians concerns about oil spills are also high since the Margaret River Oil Lease (just 80km from Margaret River) was announced during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill and before the Montara oil spill enquiry has been released. The expansion of oil drilling also threatens the unique coral reefs, humpback whale sanctuary and marine ‘superhighway’ off the Kimberley coast.

 “Further delays in improving protection of Australia’s waters would only increase the risk of permanent damage to at risk fish stocks and expose coastal communities to the very real possibility of oil drilling, such as offshore from Margaret River and in the Kimberley,” concluded Dr StJohn.



The peak coastal organisation Surfrider Foundation Australia has come out strongly against Tony Abbot’s sudden ban on new marine parks and has accused him of “eco vandalism” and “dog-fish-whistling”. 

“The claim that marine parks harm tourism and fishing is totally untrue and irresponsible,” said the Chairman of the Surfrider Foundation Australia Board Dr Rex Campbell. 
“Fishing and fish stocks improve greatly near areas where marine parks and sanctuaries have been created.”
“While Mr Abbott was filleting the 4kg Barramundi yesterday, I had to ask myself, was he fish-mongering or scare-mongering?” said Dr. Campbell. “Plus I wondered if the barramundi got to be 4kg only because it grew up in a protected sanctuary?”. 

Surfrider Foundation is calling on all political parties to proclaim more marine sanctuaries, not less, to ensure protection against overfishing, oil spills, shipping hazards, whaling, offshore pollution and to grow tourism. 

It would appear that Mr Abbott is purposefully blurring the line between marine parks and No Take zones, which typically are a small percentage of any marine park. Marine parks themselves constitute a miniscule amount of Australia’s nearly 36,000 kilometers mainland coastline and the 24,000 kilometers of island coastline.

Marine parks are multiple-use, meaning that a wide range of activities, including fishing, are allowed in many areas. 

Marine sanctuaries are smaller areas within the marine park and are no-take, meaning that fishing and extractive activities such as oil drilling, is not allowed. 

“The fishing industry scare campaign surrounding marine parks has been very successful, but the facts do not back up the fears. Marine sanctuaries  actually help tourism and help recreational fishing.”

“I was heavily into fishing and diving long before I rode my first wave”, says Surfrider Foundation Australia Director Gene Hardy. 
“I’ve recently been holidaying in an area within the iconic Ningaloo Marine Park, and enjoyed incredible fishing near large marine sanctuary areas.”
“It’s a simple concept, preserve some reasonably large areas as breeding / conservation areas and you are going to get spill over into your mixed fishing zones.”
“It’s not about stopping people fishing – sanctuaries work.”
“In fact the last thing anybody wants, especially serious fisherman, is to decimate our fish stocks so that no one can go fishing.”
“I want my daughter’s children to be able to catch their dinner the same way I have.” Said Mr Hardy.
“Surfrider Foundation fights for a clean oceans, not “cleaned out” oceans and calls on the Coalition to review this policy as this proposition simply will not stand up. Where these things are in place, coastal communities do well.” said Dr Campbell. 

Find out more about Surfrider at surfrider.org.au