Christmas Islanders strive to make their voices heard on marine park plans
For Azmi Yon, a resident of Christmas Island, the vast ocean that surrounds his native island is his “heart”.
- Federal government intends to create marine parks in the water surrounding Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands
- Independent consultant Harriet Davies visited Christmas Island to help locals make their voices heard
- According to Azmi Yon, the marine environment of Christmas Island represents the food, life and culture of the locals.
“It’s our food, it’s our life, it’s our culture,” Mr. Yon said.
As president of the Malaysian Christmas Island Association – as well as a county councilor – Mr. Yon wants to ensure that Christmas Island’s unique marine environment is protected for future generations.
Last month, the federal government announced plans to create two new marine parks in the waters surrounding Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, to secure the future of Australia’s “last intact marine environments”.
Christmas Island, an Australian outer territory in the Indian Ocean, lies 2,608 km northwest of Perth and only 350 km south of Java and Sumatra.
Meanwhile, the Cocos (Keeling) Islands – also an outside Australian territory – lie 980 km southwest of Christmas Island and 2,932 km northwest of Perth.
According to Environment Minister Sussan Ley, the two marine parks will cover an area of up to 740,000 square kilometers.
“We know this is a critical area for bluefin tuna spawning and – although we have yet to unlock its many other secrets – it is important to protect the ocean’s unique habitats and species that depend on it. [those habitats]”Ms. Ley said.
The community wants to make its voice heard
Harriet Davies is an independent consultant and director of Sea Country Solutions.
Ms. Davies has started working with the Christmas Island community to ensure that local values and aspirations are included in the government’s marine park management plans.
After meeting with different community groups, Ms. Davies asked them why the marine environment is important to them, what worries them and what might address those concerns.
“We start with these small group meetings, usually sitting around a map and going out [marking pens] and mark areas, key fishing or diving areas, or areas that the local community knows to be ecologically important, ”Ms. Davies said.
“We’re documenting a lot of their ecological knowledge because scientists can kind of fly for a few weeks here and there and we get a glimpse of what’s going on, but the local people are in the water and on the water, all days.”
Ms Davies will work to create a community-led proposal on how the marine park could be managed.
Once completed, the community will then share its aspirations with the federal government.
Christmas Island is surrounded by a narrow fringing reef which is home to a rich diversity of marine life.
Whale sharks visit the island’s waters, along with dolphins, manta rays and hundreds of tropical fish.
According to the Federal Ministry of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, the reef is home to more than 88 species of corals and 650 different types of fish.
The island also has some of the largest underground drop offs in the world, which collapse for several kilometers.
Ms Davies agreed that it was important for the island’s waters to be protected.
“In the Indian Ocean Territories, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, there hasn’t been a lot of research,” she said.
“So there is a huge data gap and we need to build on local ecological knowledge to fill some of these gaps. “
The inhabitants want to protect themselves from the trawlers
For Mr. Yon, he would like the life and food of the island to be protected.
He said he was concerned about overfishing by international fishermen in the waters of Christmas Island.
“We want a marine park, and we want to protect and preserve our fishing rights for our traditional community, for everyone, for our generations to come, for the community that is here on the island.”
The Federal Government has said discussions with stakeholders on the new marine parks will begin immediately, with all Australians having the opportunity to provide their views on the proposal in formal statutory consultations in the second half of 2021.