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Sydney Harbour Marine Park

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It’s been called Australia’s estuarine jewel and there's no doubt Sydney Harbour is our most iconic waterway, renowned for  its beauty and the magnificent bays and inlets that line the harbour foreshore.

Scientists at SIMS, based at Chowder Bay in Mosman, have just completed a year-long study into the health, habitat and biodiversity of Sydney Harbour. The report from the study has been forwarded to the NSW Minister for the Environment, Rob Stokes, where it will act as a valuable research document.

The state government is currently conducting studies into the viability of protected marine areas along the NSW coastline and into Sydney Harbour.

It's a project that has bipartisan political support and will consider the social, economic and ecological impacts of establishing these protected areas.

"I think everyone values the harbour for its beauty and its biological diversity and we have worked for the past two years to create this comprehensive report,” says the director of the Sydney Harbour Research Program at SIMS, Professor Emma Johnston.

"Sydney Harbour is a paradox - stunningly beautiful, astonishingly diverse but also subject to serious threats.

"The harbour hosts a wide variety of habitats that in turn support a great diversity of organisms - a diversity that is rarely matched in other estuaries or coastal systems globally.“

With a team of 15 research scientists (who worked under the umbrella of SIMS, the state government and the Australian Museum), Professor Johnston says the report examined scientific databases and sought the advice of local, national and international scholars.

Some key finds of the report that will be instrumental in the government's decision making conclude:

  • There is a lack of information on many of the harbour’s fish and plankton communities  
  • Although there have been more than 300 previous studies of the harbour, little is still known about its ecosystem function and where emerging contaminants of concern are distributed  
  • There are very few long-term monitoring studies that allow for the prediction of future changes in the marine environment.

Marine scientist John Tumbull, who has been involved in the SIMS research project, says it’s clear people want to know the Sydney marine environment is being looked after and protected.

“Surveys show that 90 per cent of people want to see these areas protected - there is a massive sense of goodwill towards them," he tells North Shore Living.

He says it’s vital when the state government considers the establishment of marine parks that it’s not just seen as an argument between local stakeholders - like fishermen and conservationists - but a concern for all Sydneysiders.

NSW Environment Minister Rob Stokes says his government’s approach is about an "evidence-based decision making process”, and this was demonstrated with the passage of the Marine Estate Management Bill in 2014, which aims at achieving a balance between economic and ecological impacts.

There are many sites due to be monitored before the state government makes decisions about the marine protection parks in early 2016. These include inner harbour locations like Chowder Bay and Long Reef, Narrabeen Head, North Harbour and Barrenjoey Head.

Mr Turnbull says the harbour is under threat from a number of processes, including increasing carbon dioxide levels, coral bleaching and habitat changes coastal development and runoff, shipping transport and reef damage.

"If marine-protected areas are to be successful, they must be well designed and managed," he confirms. “They must be large enough to provide real protection to wide- ranging species and they must be interconnected in a network that allows for the flow of water currents between reserves. They must be established and left in place for long enough for the effects to be realised, which could be decades.

"Zoning is also important and a marine-protected area that still allows mining and fishing is not really a protected area.”

Scientists say we have a long way to go in making sure our marine environment is not destroyed — with currently just two per cent under protection.

“There is a lot more to be done," says Mr Turnbull.

"We all need to embrace that love of the ocean and concentrate less on dividing up the prize."


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