Ningaloo Reef Marine Park (and whale sharks!)

Sorry for the delay in blogging - a mixure of travelling, lots of driving and experiencing some wonders of marine life up here in Exmouth. With quick overnight stops in Geraldton and Denham along the way, I made it in good time to Exmouth and one of the undoubted jewels in WA’s marine park network, Ningaloo Reef.

Oyster Stacks - snorkelling with corals just off the shore

Oyster Stacks - snorkelling with corals just off the shore

NIngaloo Reef is isolated and unique, its fringing reef allowing snorkelling among coral reefs just metres off some of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Designated in 1987, it shares the accolade of being one of WA’s oldest marine parks, and together with a corresponding federal marine park that extend further than 3 nautical miles, the park makes up around 5080km2. Then there is a further offshore marine park, the “Gascogne Marine Park”, which joins up to the combined Ningaloo Reef marine park (although sanctuary zones there were reduced in 2017).

Turquoise Bay “drift” side - stick your snorkel in at the far end and let the current take you up to this point - one of the must-do snorkel sites

Turquoise Bay “drift” side - stick your snorkel in at the far end and let the current take you up to this point - one of the must-do snorkel sites

As well as the corals, Ningaloo has amazing turtle nesting and hatching, dugongs, dolphin and sharks, including the majestic whale shark, young males of which arrive regularly from this time of year to take advantage of the coral spawning. More of that later!

Delving into the management of the marine park

Pretty much the first thing I did when I got here to Exmouth was head to the Parks and Wildlife Service office to meet Pete Barnes. Pete is the Ningaloo marine park coordinator, a pretty amazing job, and in charge of the overall management of the park, including its sanctuary zones. We met in Pete’s office, a thankfully air-conditioned cabin as the temperature outside was well over 40 degrees.

Ningaloo has so many amazing natural assets that it unsurprisingly is a major draw for tourists, and it’s here where most of the pressures on the park lies, along with fishing. Pete and I chatted about the difficult balance to be struck on how much you can encourage magical experiences like swimming with whale sharks, before affecting the condition of the sanctuary zones. One of the best snorkel sites, Turquoise Bay (really just stunning) is backed up with cars in high season out the car parks and onto the main road. I got the sense that the answer to this question has not yet been found.

The old NIngaloo management plan and zones (sanctuary zones in Green, compared to the more recent zones above

The old NIngaloo management plan and zones (sanctuary zones in Green, compared to the more recent zones above

The issue of monitoring came up and Pete was clear: monitoring is all great but it needs to be linked to management and to reducing the pressures on the sanctuary zones. So as well as just measuring nudibranchs or condition, try to use it to answer some of the questions about what the impact of different activitieis are. And showcase the economic and social changes that would occur.

The economic argument was one that we also came back to, notably that you can’t, even in Ningaloo, rely purely on the ecological case for these zones. Some way of showcasing the economic case for such sites can be crucual in winning hearts and minds of the local community and speaking in simple language. It doen’t need to be in dollars or pounds, but some way of communicating the economic importance of the park helps.

Just missed a nesting green turtle….

Just missed a nesting green turtle….

Ningaloo was rezoned incrementally in 2004 to increase the percentage of sanctuary zones to 34%, 1% greater than the Great Barrier Reef and by far the most in the WA region. That was a reflection of NIngaloo’s importance and spending a few days here I can really see why. It’s such a special place.

Swimming with Whale Sharks

I was also lucky enough to go on a whale shark tour with Ningaloo Blue - a really well-run operation with super keen staff that know all the rules about swimming with whale sharks. During the trip I had the chance to chat with the videographer Vee from Blue Media Exmouth, who took these amazing photos below , and they obviously recognise the importance of the sanctuary zones and the need to protect the reef that brings the sharks that brings the people that brings the money. And when we snorkelled later outside the sanctuary zones, meeting some fishermen, the captain Brad exclaimed “it’s okay, it’s not sanctuary. Can’t fish in sanctuary!”.

It was a special experience and one I won’t forget in a while.

What a privilege to see this whale shark (image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth)

What a privilege to see this whale shark (image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth)

Image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth

Image: Vee at Blue Media Exmouth

Marmion Marine Park and the importance of monitoring

On Wednesday, I took the car and drove up to Perth’s Northern suburbs, to visit the first ever marine park in Western Australia, Marmion Marine Park. Designated in 1987, it’s now over thirty years old, and protects the intertidal rocks and subtidal reefs, seagrass beds and habitats for sealions and birds. You can drive right up alongside it, and there are amazing beaches all along for surfing, swimming and snorkelling. Also in the middle of it is the major complex of Hillarys boat harbour, with the Western Australian Aquarium and Nandos among others.

Given its proximity to some expensive neighbourhoods of WA’s capital and its history and intensive use, you may expect more people to know about Marmion, or for it to have embedded itself in people’s identities here, but this hasn’t been the case. Aside from one informatio board at the harbour, I was struck that the average person would struggle to know that there’s a marine park on their doorstep. Sometimes, age isn’t always everything when it comes to marine reserves.

View back towards Trigg Rock and the surfers at Trigg Beach

View back towards Trigg Rock and the surfers at Trigg Beach

In terms of protections, there are three tiny sanctuary zones within the park, as well as a “recreation area” that allows line fishing from the beach, a key stakeholder group in this region and across Western Australia. There’s also a ban on spearfishing out to 1800m from the coast. I heard from Mel about the challenges of Marmion, resistance to further sanctuary zones, and its outdated management plan, that dates back to 1992! Luckily, there are plans to renew this in the near future and hopefully this will bring people’s minds back to what a fantastic resource they have on their doorstep.

Some impressive rock formations - natural or human?

Some impressive rock formations - natural or human?

Later in the day, I headed over to WA’s Department of Biodiversity and Conservation, where I met up with Alan Kendrick. Alan heads up the strategic monitoring programme for WA’s marine parks and I wanted to get some lessons from his long experience about how monitoring the sanctuaries works, how long is enough to show the benefits of these zones and plans for the future.

Marmion’s marine zones (sorry for blurry pic)

Marmion’s marine zones (sorry for blurry pic)

Alan was pretty clear on a number of points: first, the marine parks process has been highly political, and the lack of sanctuary zones has often been down to political trading rather than scientific consensus. Ningaloo is a positive example, where an election commitment led to the rezoning of the park to increase the sanctuary zones to around 34%, but elsewhere this has not been the case. There is also infighting within government departments that can stall things, and there is a strong “I fish, I vote” culture in WA. Secondly, there is a real need to look to the long term with sanctuary zones and marine parks - getting them in albeit not perfectly at least gets them going, drives resources for monitoring, and the ten year review cycle for WA’s marine parks can allow rezoning in the future. And Thirdly, never get complacent: link the monitoring straight to the management effectiveness of the marine parks - you can never know if (the management in) a sanctuary zone is working or not if you don’t monitor the condition. To do that, you need at least 10 years of good data - only now at Ningaloo do they feel confident about making a judgement on the management effectiveness of the park. These are also lessons I heard in California.

Yesterday was mainly a day of catching up on other work, and a walk into Fremantle for a pizza and beer at Little Creatures Brewery - today though I’m heading up to Ningaloo! First stop, Geraldton…..

Viewpoint over the marine park

Viewpoint over the marine park

Marmion’s management plan - a little dated now but plans to update it!

Marmion’s management plan - a little dated now but plans to update it!

Mullaloo beach

Mullaloo beach

Shoalwater Islands Marine Park - and a few little penguins...

So two blogs today about marine parks and sanctuary zones in the Perth metropolitan area. Later on, I’ll be talking about monitoring and Marmion Marine Park in Perth’s northern suburbs, but I wanted to tell you about my visit to Penguin Island and the surrounding Shoalwater Islands Marine Park on Tuesday. It was a wonderful place!

I took myself down to the southern tip of the Perth area, through industrial suburbs, to Rockingham, where I was ready for the 10am ferry with Rockingham Wild Encounters to Penguin Island. This is the northernmost breeding colony for little penguins, no more than 30-40cm high, which breed in the vegetation from June until September. These penguins are really struggling due to warming oceans driving their food further away from this colony, so good management of the human activitites around the marine park to minimise local disturbance is especially important.

Penguin Island Panorama, looking back towards Rockingham and mainland

Penguin Island Panorama, looking back towards Rockingham and mainland

40,000 years ago, the set of islands in the marine Park, including Penguin Island, Seal Island (for its sealions that haul out), Bird Island (for the various seabird species that breed), formed part of mainland WA. Today, the park protects the reef systems, seagrass meadows and limestone platforms, as well as the breeding seabirds and sealions.

Great signage as you face the marine park.

Great signage as you face the marine park.

Managing Shoalwater is a challenge and a dilemma for the WA Government. The income that Penguin Island draws from visitors is hughly significant, not just for funding Shoalwater but other marine parks. We all need more people from all walks of life to experience and enjoy marine biodiversity, and Penguin Island in particular is perfect for this, within a metropolitan area and with the cute (so cute!) draw of penguins. Yet, it feels like the golden goose is in danger of being cooked at times. The day before I went, almost a thousand people visitied the island (to be fair, on my day there weren’t too much more than a hundred I’d think), with other boat trips, jet skis, and so on. All of this is allowed inside Sanctuary Zones (within speed limits).

Shoalwater’s sanctuary zones

Shoalwater’s sanctuary zones

Later that evening, over Pancakes for Pancake day, I had the good fortune to discuss this with Mel Evans, the Marine Parks Coordinator for the Perth area, including Shoalwater, and Roanna Baker, the Marine Conservation Officer in the WA Parks and Wildlife Service. Great choice of meeting!

Mel’s only too aware of this balance, and that the sanctuary zones in the park are pretty small in size to be effective. There are other “special purpose zones” for wildlife conservation that allow recreational fishing, but it’s far from the 30%+ that WA generally aims for from a science perspective. I was fascinated by Mel’s journey from conservation planning to marine park management, and the plain truth (which politicians and others mostly fail to pick up) that MPA management is just plain hard! You need the people on board, resources to back it up, deals to be made with industries, an adaptive approach. You need to do it properly or not at all, and back it up with monitoring to show that it’s working or not.

I think Mel would admit that the Perth marine parks have a way to go to reach best practice, and that Shoalwater Islands’ management plan is due an update (having been written in 2007). All in all, a great start to the fellowship proper.

I took some nice photos of the wildlife at https://www.marine-reserves.com/#/part-twenty/ too - check them out :) #nofilterneeded

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Welcome to Western Australia! Part two of the WCMT adventure awaits...

So it’s been some months since I updated this blog and came back from California, where I learnt a huge amount about what makes marine reserves work (or not). Since coming back, the issue of highly protected marine reserves has been getting more attention in the UK, with the Government promising to take “an active approach” to having more reserves in English waters. It feels like there could be a political space opening up for more such reserves in the UK, which hopefully will be taken.

And with that in mind, it’s back on the road to complete my WCMT journey, this time in Western Australia!

I’ve been to WA on two occasions and absolutely love it here. Stunning coastline, warm weather, friendly people, great coffee and beer, amazing marine biodiversity. What’s not to love! When the idea of my WCMT fellowship was just a seed in my brain, I instantly thought of WA to explore how they have incorporated marine reserves, or “sanctuary zones”, into their network of marine protected areas. These zones sit within the wider boundaries of WA’s marine parks, and are “look, don’t touch” areas: low impact public activities such as walking, diving, surfing and kayaking are welcome, but activities such as fishing, dredging and dumping are not.

WA’s waters extend 3 nautical miles from the coast, beyond which is the responsibility of the Australian Government, which also has a network of MPAs including marine reserves. Collectively, around 36 percent of Australian waters are in some form of MPA. The federal version of marine reserves is broadly known as “national park zones” and have similar rules and regulations to WA’s sanctuary zones”.

WA’s MPA network. As well as Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, WA’s marine reserves are known as “sanctuary zones” and form part of most marine parks. Image: WA Parks and Wildlife Service

WA’s MPA network. As well as Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, WA’s marine reserves are known as “sanctuary zones” and form part of most marine parks. Image: WA Parks and Wildlife Service

WA’s marine parks, including its sanctuary zones, are established and managed under the 1984 Conservation and Land Management Act . Crucially, this legislation explicity requires and defines the idea and rules of sanctuary zones in legislation, noting in particular that drilling, commercial fishing, recreational fishing and aquaculture all cannot take place in a sanctuary area. Interestingly, the concept of “special protection zones” is also established, which provides for slightly more tailored protection (so for example, you could protect a seabed habitat while allowing fishing that doesn’t touch the bottom). Not every marine park has a sanctuary zone, however.

As of June 2018, according to the Annual Report of the Conservation and Parks Commission, to which the marine parks are responsible, around 4.4 million hectares of WA waters, or 44,000 square kilometres, are within marine parks. That’s around 35-40% of WA’s coastal waters. Around 4% of waters are in sanctuary zones.

Map of Australia’s SW MPA network, including several national park zones which broadly equate to marine reserves. Map: Parks Australia

Map of Australia’s SW MPA network, including several national park zones which broadly equate to marine reserves. Map: Parks Australia

On this trip, I’ll be visiting four of these marine parks with sanctuary zones to get a sense of how they operate, how they are managed and monitored, and how they are performing. Week one will be based in Perth, visiting the Shoalwater Islands and Marmion marine parks to understand how urban pressures apply to highly protected marine reserves, while in week two, I’ll be driving north, stopping at Shark Bay Marine Park and Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve (home of the famour stromatolites"), before ending at the world-famous Ningaloo Marine Park. Exciting!!

Watch this space for more news as I go.

NIngaloo Reef, here I come…

NIngaloo Reef, here I come…

Taking the Surfliner down to the OC!

I took the iconic Pacific Surfliner down to where the MPA collaborative groups all began, Laguna and Orange County. Home of the rich and famous, it’s also got some amazing rocky coastline and proper sea. But how do you manage highly protected sites that back straight onto some of the most developed coast in California?

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Federal or State, it's one sea: how do the Channel Islands square up?

The Channel Islands have been had federal protection since 1980, with State Marine Reserves added as part of the CA Marine Life Protection Act MPA redesign process in the 2000s. There’s potential for confused governace, so how does it work? I spoke with Kristen Hislop from the Environmental Defense Center to find out…

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