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WA's oceans under threat from climate change

Rachel Siewert 8 Nov 2013

There's no doubt that beaches and oceans are an integral part of the WA lifestyle.

Be it weekend barbecues, walks with the family, surfing, fishing and camping trips, swimming or boating, we're blessed with the weather and natural beauty that sees many of us spending time on the coast.

But the near pristine beaches and mostly clear waters can make it hard to spot one of the biggest threats facing our marine environment – the impact of climate change.

The effects of climate change on our oceans are a lot harder to observe than the impacts of pollution or overfishing, but that doesn't detract from the threat climate change poses.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has described unprecedented changes, including that our oceans have warmed, sea levels have risen, and the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the oceans  have increased.

Our oceans are particularly good at absorbing carbon dioxide.

The IPCC estimates that the oceans have absorbed about 30 per cent of the increase in this gas since pre-industrial times, leading to their increased acidification. This will only worsen as carbon pollution continues.

Climate change and ocean warming is also responsible for sending some of the world's ocean currents further pole-wards.

This includes the East Australian Current, made famous in the film Finding Nemo, with reports that the current now travels hundreds of kilometres further south than in the past.

A report recently published in Nature Climate Change found that in the Indian Ocean, there is a southward distribution of sea birds as well as loss of cool-water seaweeds from regions north of Perth.

Two of the report's authors have described the widespread reorganisation of marine ecosystems, saying it is 'likely to have significant repercussions for the services these ecosystems provide to humans'.

The CSIRO has noted the movement of new species further south around our coastline, and has flagged the potential effect of ocean warming on farmed species and aquaculture, such as Tasmania's salmon industry.

Around the country, changed ocean conditions can also create a more hospitable environment for invasive species that can impact on marine biodiversity, fisheries and aquaculture.

The combination of threats we are seeing is significant and can profoundly affect many components of our marine ecosystems.

Plant life, fish, marine mammals and birds can all be affected. Breeding patterns, migration, the distribution of species and the availability of food and habitats can all be altered through changes to our oceans, and each change has a knock on effect for other marine life.

In short, changes to our oceans have the potential to affect ocean users, tourism, commercial and recreational fishers alike, and could come at a devastating environmental and economic cost.

This is significant for WA's future, given that economic analysis from the Centre for Policy Development shows our South West marine ecosystem is worth $2.9 billion each year through tourism, commercial fishing, and recreation-based industries.

Around 90 per cent of the marine life off WA's South West coast is unique -  it's found here and nowhere else in the world.

The Naturaliste Plateau, offshore from the Capes Coast is home to a variety of undiscovered marine life and the area is visited by half of the world's whale species. The entire region, ocean and land, is an internationally declared biodiversity hotspot.

Australia clearly has a lot to lose, which makes action on climate change and action to protect our oceans a priority.

Despite knowing this threat exists and is founded on years of robust science, the Coalition is pushing forward with retrograde policies when it comes to reducing carbon pollution and protecting our marine environment.

Legislation to repeal the price on carbon pollution has now been introduced to Federal Parliament.

The Coalition has also strongly signalled an intention to dismantle our current system of marine parks.

Our current system is one of the world's best, and is backed by a decade of research, planning and consultation.

The consequences of climate change put a renewed emphasis on the need for marine protection and responsible management of fish stocks.

The scientifically based management plans allow for the long term viability of commercial and recreational fishing and ongoing opportunities for tourism and recreational industries.

Dismantling the reserve networks makes fish stocks, endangered species and sensitive marine habitats more vulnerable to climate change, overfishing and pollution.

This is an irresponsible step in the context of the growing threats our oceans are facing.

We know the threats, we know the risks and we know the consequences. Responsible and considered leadership is needed to address climate change and marine protection.



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