Tony Burke.

Tony Burke Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

FISHERMEN are claiming they are the ''soft target'' in a proposed network of marine reserves they say will harm their industry while largely leaving alone the more lucrative offshore oil and gas business.

Federal Environment Minister Tony Burke is expected this week to finalise the plan for the marine reserves, which will stretch around Australia and will curb commercial and recreational fishing.

It will create the world's largest marine protection area with a new Coral Sea reserve extending out beyond the Great Barrier Reef. The network will also establish a large protected area off the south-west coast and patchwork reserves in the Great Australian Bight and off the west, north-west and northern coasts.

It is understood Mr Burke is at odds with Resources Minister Martin Ferguson over some aspects of the network. Mr Ferguson recently announced that 27 new areas were up for oil and gas exploration, including some within proposed reserves.

The reserves would offer differing levels of protection, ranging from a ban on commercial fishing and mining, to ''multiple-use zones'' that allow some activities but not others.

Mr Burke said yesterday that no decision had yet been made. But he talked up the proposed reserves as the largest act of conservation in Australia's history. ''We are looking at possibly the most significant individual step in conservation that Australia has seen … ''

He said the world's oceans were underappreciated but that decisions Australia had in front of it ''give us the opportunity to lead the way in turning the corner''.

The ABC published a draft map of the proposed reserves on its website yesterday. Brian Jeffriess, a spokesman for the Commonwealth Fisheries Association, said it would be ''extremely disappointing'' if the map closely resembled the final decision. Fishermen were particularly concerned that a compensation package would come well after the announcement of the final boundaries for the reserves, leaving them in a state of uncertainty for months.

He said it focused unfairly on the fishing industry while leaving promising areas for oil and gas, such as the north-west and the Great Australian Bight, relatively unaffected.

''It exempts oil and gas virtually altogether,'' he said. ''The government clearly takes a position, which to some extent we understand, that energy security is more important as a revenue generator. (We're) certainly the soft target.''

One of the areas Mr Ferguson has approved for oil and gas exploration, just north of the Rowley Shoals coral atolls west of Broome, falls within a ''multiple-use zone'' in the draft, meaning mining could go ahead. This approval, just last month, means that Mr Burke cannot extend the area to a full marine sanctuary, which would ban mining.

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