ABC Sydney Drive interview with Minister for the Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek

RICHARD GLOVER, HOST: Well, if you were to travel from Hobart to Antarctica, you'd come across the most amazing site at about the halfway point in your journey. It's Macquarie Island, home to 100,000 seals and roughly 4 million penguins, including the royal penguin, only found on Macquarie and nearby islands. News today that the Federal Environment Minister, Tanya Plibersek has signed off on plans to almost triple the size of the marine park off Macquarie Island, with 93 per cent of it to be closed to fishing, mining and other extractive industries. So, what is it about Macquarie which makes it worth protecting? And what are the commercial fisheries who have criticised the extension today? Well, Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister and joins us here on Drive. Minister, good afternoon.


GLOVER: What's special about Macquarie?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, you said it yourself, it's home to these absolutely beautiful, unique species like the southern elephant seal, the royal penguins, quite a range of different albatross types make their homes there. It is a really critical breeding ground for millions of seabirds, seals and penguins, and it's just so special and unique. I've never been there, but I've looked at a lot of pictures and a lot of video of what it looks like. It's amazing.

GLOVER: Now, that's the point about this is it's not enough to protect the island itself, you've got to protect the ecosystem on which these animals all depend.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Yeah, absolutely. So, you've got to make sure that in the breeding grounds, there's enough food in the oceans for these penguins and seals and so on. And you also want to minimise the disruption to their natural habitat, including from things like fishing and so on. So, there's two small sustainable fisheries that are operating in the area, catching Patagonian toothfish. They'll be able to continue their operations. What we're saying is that they won't be able to expand trawling and so on in the future.

GLOVER: Okay. I mean, you have been in the past quite praising of those two companies. You've said they've been pretty good at minimising bycatch and so forth. They feel that they haven't been rewarded for the care that they've spent in making this a sustainable fishery.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, I did actually take into account some suggestions they made about changes to the map. I've given them a little bit more area to fish in than I originally proposed, but what they've asked for is the ability in the future to trawl, and I've said no to that and there's very good reason for that. This place is unique and unless we protect it, it just won't be the pristine wonderland it is today for future generations.

GLOVER: Okay and if they've got a business without trawling now, you don't quite understand why they need it in the future, I suppose.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: No, absolutely not. I mean, they're doing a good job now. They're very careful about bycatch. And the great thing about that, of course, is you can charge a premium for incredibly delicious sustainably caught fish. We've got markets overseas that really want to buy good quality fish caught in a sustainable way. If you lose that environmental credential, that really impacts prices you can charge.

GLOVER: There's been a lot of support, of course, for what you've done today. I suppose the criticism has been from people in the fisheries industry who are worried about the process this time around. You're fresh as the Environment Minister, that they say that the attitude was really it's a fait accompli from the start. They didn't feel that their submissions were really being listened to.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, if I wasn't listening, I wouldn't have changed the final map. So, they've actually achieved a change to the proposal that's given them a bit of a greater area to fish in than I originally was looking at and so it's obvious that I've listened to them. The fact that I don't agree with future trawling doesn't mean I didn't listen. It means I don't agree.

GLOVER: Are there more - you'd like to do this in other areas, though, I imagine. Extend other national parks?

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: Well, we'll have to make a decision on a case-by-case basis as national parks or marine parks come up for re-examination over time, or if there are new areas that are contemplated, we'll look at those on a case-by-case basis. But we have set a target of protecting 30 per cent of our oceans and 30 per cent of our land by 2030. When it comes to oceans, this additional area that's being protected will take our marine parks to about 48 per cent of Australia's oceans. That is fantastic. It means that about 22 per cent of our oceans will be highly protected. Again, that's terrific.

But I'd say it's not just great for nature. It's obviously great for nature, but it's not just great for nature. It's also good for people who enjoy recreational fishing or even commercial fishing, because if there's nowhere protected for the fish to breed, you just see continued depletion of fish stocks. So, it's a big win for nature and I think it's also, in the long run, people will appreciate it it's a win for fishing as well.

GLOVER: You might get a salute or two from the royal penguins, which don't breed anywhere else other than the Macquarie and a few close by islands. Minister, thank you.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: I was just going to say that's why it's so important to protect these places. There's not many of these wild places left. We need to look after them.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek, thank you very much for your time this afternoon.

MINISTER PLIBERSEK: It's a pleasure, thank you.

GLOVER: Tanya Plibersek is the Environment Minister.