OPPOSITION Leader Tony Abbott has slammed the process leading to the Federal Government's decision to go ahead with creating the world's largest network of marine reserves, but said he would not repeal the law if elected next year.
From Saturday, a proposal put forward in June to create 40 new marine reserves will become law, Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke announced on Friday.
The plan, which has been welcomed by conservation groups and condemned by the fishing industry, means more than 2.3 million sq km of ocean will be off limits to certain fishing and mining activities. This will include vast tracts of the Coral Sea.
It comes after months of consultation between the Federal Government and stakeholders.
"As of tonight, Australian becomes the world leader in protection of the oceans," Mr Burke told reporters in Sydney on Friday.
Mr Burke also revealed the details of a $100 million assistance package designed to help commercial anglers affected by the decision.
He said the expansion of Australia's marine reserves would affect about 1% of the nation's commercial fishing industry, and for that reason $100 million would be "in excess" of the compensation required.
But Mr Abbott disagreed, vowing a Coalition government would conduct a review of the legislation.
Earlier this year Mr Abbott and Dawson MP George Christensen signalled their intention to delay the implementation of the plan, citing a lack of consultation and science.
But the Opposition Leader ruled out overturning the law if he became prime minister.
"We support strong environmental protection. But it cannot be at the expense of the livelihoods of people who make their living from the sea," Mr Abbott said.
"I think most Australian would be very disappointed if the result was that we eat more imported seafood.
"We think these marine protected areas that have just been announced should be reviewed not repealed. I want to stress that - they should be reviewed, not repealed."
Mr Burke scoffed at the suggestion the consultation and science behind the decision was flawed.
He said the process leading to this point had been "more than a decade in the making".
More than 80,000 submissions had been received during the consultation process, he said, most of which were supportive of the plan.
The issue was raised at the community Cabinet meeting in Queensland this week, Mr Burke said.
"Someone stood up ... and asked ... what would this mean for the capacity of her sons to be able to continue fishing in the years to come," he said.
"And I was able to explain it from where we were standing you had to go somewhere between 300 and 400 km offshore before you got to the first place where someone wouldn't be allowed to throw out a line if they were out there on a tinny.
"We've put them in areas where, by and large, we are not talking about a significant impact to recreational fishing at all. And that message has started to get out. "
Mr Burke said work would begin immediately on developing management plans for the new reserves. These plans will set out how the reserves are to be managed and what gear types and activities can and cannot be used and undertaken in the marine reserves.
"While the management plans for the new reserves are being developed, transitional arrangements will be in place that maintain current arrangements for industry and recreation fishers," he said.
"This means that from Saturday until the new management plans come into effect in July 2014, there will be no 'on the water' changes for users in the new areas added to the Commonwealth reserve estate."
Meanwhile, Queensland LNP Senator Ron Boswell described the announcement as a "tragic day" for Australia's coastal communities.
He does not buy the government line that the decision will not affect recreational anglers, and predicted the move would cause immediate damage to the fishing industry in many ports, including Cairns and Mooloolaba.
He said as well as reviewing the social and economic impacts of the decision, a Coalition government would move to place the Parliament in charge of the decision-making process, thereby making the proclamations of the marine reserves disallowable.
"At present, the Environment Minister has sole power for this," he said.
New marine reserves have been proclaimed in five of Australia's six large marine regions.
Major elements of the $100 million Fisheries Adjustment Package:
- Transitional Business Assistance: payments to fishing businesses based on their recent fishing history in those parts of the new marine reserves where they are impacted once the management plans are operational.
- Sectoral measures: competitive grants to improve the long term sustainability of fisheries displaced by the marine reserves.
- Removal of commercial fishing effort: the purchase of individual fishers' entitlements or quota units in fisheries where the scale of the fishery has been reduced by the reserves to help ensure that they remain sustainable.