RAP outrage in Cairns
  |  First Published: July 2003

‘OUTRAGE’ is the only way to describe the feeling of recreational and commercial fishers in Cairns over the Draft RAP (Representative Areas Program) released in early June by GBRMPA (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority).

The GBRMPA originally said they were aiming to protect 20% of the Great Barrier Reef by stopping extractive activities like fishing, but the draft plan has increased that to 32% overall – and it is more like 50% of the reefs within an hour by boat from Cairns.

The Draft RAP proposes to close Flora, Scott, Maori, Stevens, Elford, Moore, Michaelmas, Hastings, Saxon and Norman Reefs, Hervey Shoals, the reef around Green Island and leave open Sudbury, Briggs, Thetford, Arlington, Upolo, Oyster and Pixie Reefs. In area of reef and surrounding water closed it is an even higher percentage. This will force anglers into two main areas around Sudbury and Arlington Reefs.

The idea behind the RAP is to protect the reef environment, yet what will happen if the current draft is implemented out from Cairns is the creation of two piscatorial deserts because so may fishers will be forced into such a concentrated area?

There are only three departure points within an hour's drive of the Cairns CBD. They are the mouth of the Russell/ Mulgrave, Trinity Inlet and Yorkeys Knob. If you leave from the mouth of the Russell/Mulgrave the nearest viable reef fishing available is over an hour by sea. From Trinity Inlet you have only three options (the areas around Sudbury, Thetford or Arlington Reefs) that are within an hour's run by sea. Leaving from Yorkeys Knob you have the Arlington area, or the minute Pixie Reef, within an hour's run – and that’s it. The vast majority of Cairns boat owners who fish the reef have vessels under 5m, which are not designed to go well offshore. There could be disasters on our hands when these small boat owners are forced to head further out on what seems like a perfect day, and run into heavy winds and seas hours from shore.

The economic impact of the proposed RAP closures is already being felt by the local boating industry, with local dealers and manufactures reporting an almost total ceasing of inquiries about the purchase of boats since the release of the draft. The ramifications of this downturn will spread much wider than the local community, with marine and associated industries well outside the area of influence of GBRMPA about to feel the impact. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park area and associated communities are a significant market for southern outboard suppliers, marine manufacturers and wholesalers.

A look at the proposed green zones off Cairns clearly indicates that GBRMPA have gone to bed with the tourist industry, as nearly all these reefs have tourist moorings or plans in place to build them, such as the proposed floating tourist park already in the pipeline for Moore Reef.

GBRMPA go on about the harm that extractive activities (like fishing) do to the environment, but what about the excreting activities of the massive tourist fleet that operates daily out of Cairns? There are no sulliage facilities currently operating in Cairns Port so the tourist fleet, which presents this wonderful picture of being environmentally friendly, pump out their sullage pits on the way to and/or from the reef each day. You can bet this will be done outside the Green Zones just to further stuff up what little fishing grounds locals have left.

To justify jumping into bed with the tourist industry, GBRMPA compares the economic importance of recreational fishing, commercial fishing and tourism. As it suits their cause they quote tourism figures ‘including adjacent catchment’.

While the GBRMPA espouse the cause of protecting the reef, what about the political forces behind it? It smells a lot like an attempt by the Howard government to buy the green vote at the expense of a few of their seats along the Queensland coast. If the current draft goes through for the Cairns area, I hope the local Liberal member has his retirement plans figured out.

Many business owners directly affected by the proposed fishing closures want to know what compensation is going to be available to businesses that are forced to close. The flow-on effect to allied industries and businesses will be devastating to the Cairns economy, which gains a large portion of its income from the fishing and boating industry, both recreational and commercial.

The significance of the loss to the Cairns economy has not been lost on local Mayor Kevin Byrne, who describes the draft RAP as ‘socially irresponsible’.

No thinking angler can deny that we need to better protect the Great Barrier Reef, but a much more balanced approach is needed, and forcing the large numbers of anglers that fish out of Cairns into such a small area is not balanced. What is needed is seasonal closures and further tightening of bag and catch limits on both the recreational and commercial fishers. More yellow zones and fewer green zones off Cairns would also reduce the impact without focusing the effort so much.

Yellow zones alone will not be enough to reduce the devastating impact the live fish market has had on the reef. This practice is seen by many observers to be the biggest threat to fish stocks on the GBR and much tighter total catch restrictions need to be placed on this trade.

Huge numbers of concerned recreational anglers turned out to protest against the draft RAP at a meeting held at the Cairns Show Grounds on June 18th. The single most important thing for concerned fishers is to make sure they have a say in the process by making a submission by the closing date of Monday August 4. Copies of the draft RAP and submission forms can be obtained by contacting GBRMPA on free call 1800 990 177 or from their website at www.gbrmpa.gov.au.

The printed maps are far easier to read than downloading the maps from the website, and GBRMPA has printed 40,000 copies of each of the four regions, so interested parties should still be able to obtain a hard copy.

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