The global conservation status of a NSW marine park is at risk after the Berejiklian government weakened its sanctuary status without consultation to allow recreational fishing, documents show.
Montague Island, located off the South Coast, was among the first 25 sites to be granted so-called Green Listing by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Documents obtained under freedom of information show both National Parks and IUCN raised concerns about the impact of easing protection.
Fisheries minister Adam Marshall announced last December six marine park sanctuaries would be open to recreational fishing without consulting either the public or the Batemans Marine Park Advisory Committee, according to an email sent that month by Joanne Wilson, a senior parks policy officer.
"Opening up the sanctuary zones in the marine park to line fishing, netting, and taking bait will remove all areas of refuge and breeding for fish that then spill over to other areas, and cause a reduction in the health and resilience of the marine ecosystems around Montague Island," Dr Wilson wrote.
It was "a worrying sign" the decision Fisheries hadn't bothered to consult with the parks service before the decision and "there is a risk" it won't be asked about other key issues, she said.
The move had also come just days before the renomination of Montague Island's Green List status, and it placed "future renominations at risk", Dr Wilson's email, obtained by the Herald, said.
A separate document, dated Christmas Eve, from the IUCN's Green List Committee, congratulated Montague Island Nature Reserve for achieving its status but "expressed its concern about any relaxation" of protections.
It said the extraction of fish from the two reserves – covering roughly a third of the waters around the 81-hectare island – would affect availability of food for seabirds. The committee "reserves the right to review [the Green List status] should there be adverse implications for seabird viability", the letter said.
Montague Island is visited by thousands of Australian and long nose fur seals and seabirds, such as little penguins and crested terns. It is also a "stepping stone for threatened species to islands to the south such as Gabo Island", Dr Wilson said.
Wally Stewart, a spokesman for the Yuin traditional owners, said the Indigenous community is "pretty pissed off" about the reversal of protections.
"When they took the sanctuary zone back, they should have come and talked to us," Mr Stewart said, adding the changes ignore their South Coast native title claim that extends three nautical miles into the nearby seas. "The waters have been an integral part of the claim."
Bill Barker, a former member of the parks' advisory committee and now a Nature Coast Marine Group spokesman, said he had joined a small "targeted consultation" at the Moruya Golf Club in August 2019.
The December announcement, though, "came as a total surprise to everybody including the people who work in the marine parks", Mr Barker said. "You needed to have a scientific study [before the changes] but there was none."
Minister Marshall defended the proposed changes to fishing access – that are still to formally gazetted – as an election promise taken by the Coalition to the 2019 election.
"Community members will be given another opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed changes over a minimum of two months through the established public consultation process," he said, adding both he and Environment Minister Matt Kean have to sign off on any temporary or longer change.
Mr Kean said the marine parks were popular tourist destinations, "home to important marine biodiversity and a treasured part of the local community”.
“I am aware of the strong views of stakeholders, including the IUCN, regarding the future of the sanctuary zones in the Bateman’s Bay Marine Park," he said. "For this reason I intend to visit the Marine Park and see for myself this unique and precious part of our state.”
Independent NSW MP Justin Field said the government's temporary amnesty on fishing marked "a terrible process" that hurt the region's environment, added confusion to the enforcement of fishing rules, and undermined confidence in any consultation as part of the parks' review.
"Matt Kean should reject this de-facto rezoning and demand any changes go through the proper community consultation process and is guided by science," Mr Field said.
"With summer tourists on the way, these vital marine sanctuaries are likely to face even more pressure," he said. "These protections should be restored now to allow an evidence-based review to continue."