When the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was rezoned in 2004, boosting its no-take percentage from 4.7% to over 33%, policymakers anticipated that some adverse impacts would be felt by commercial fishermen. The new closures would displace fishermen from some of their accustomed fishing grounds, and the displacement could lead to lower catches and/or higher costs from their having to fish elsewhere. In turn, these impacts could have financial ripple effects on fishing-related businesses (wholesalers, processors) and communities on shore.

To account for this, the Australian Government launched an aid initiative in 2004 to help the impacted fishermen and businesses. The Structural Adjustment Program (SAP) provided payments for multiple types of assistance: fishing license buyouts, business restructuring grants, direct payments to people who lost their fishing-related jobs, and more. The program was coordinated by the federal Environment Department – completely separate from the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which had managed the rezoning process. When the SAP was announced, the Government allocated roughly A$10 million for it, which was more than what analysts estimated the financial impact of the closures would actually be.

The program ended up costing much more. Over the course of five years of implementation (2004-2009), SAP expenditures ballooned to A$250 million, according to one estimate. That figure comes from a new independent study published in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management, which analyzed the SAP based on a review of more than 300 government documents.

How did an assistance program grow to be 25 times its original expected size? The authors of the study, led by Andrew Macintosh at Australian National University, say the program became a tool for appeasing industry and currying political favor among affected communities. The Government’s criteria to determine who was eligible for assistance, and how much they could receive, were continually loosened. The cap on business restructuring assistance was removed completely in 2006. Closing dates for applications were extended. And to pay for all of this, additional financial allocations were made again and again. Although some elected officials, as early as 2005, began warning of the program’s spiraling cost, the blowout of funds only got worse.

Macintosh and his team suggest this is a cautionary tale for policy makers in Australia and beyond who are considering setting up assistance programs. “If robust structures are not put in place that minimize the opportunities for political interference and industry influence, there is the potential for excessive payouts to be made that undermine the social benefits of MPAs,” they write. “[T]here will always be a temptation for governments to use assistance programs to solve their own political problems and quell industry and community concerns.”

The article “Dealing with interests displaced by marine protected areas: A case study on the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Structural Adjustment Package” is in Ocean & Coastal Management, Vol. 53, Issue 9, pp. 581-588 (September 2010). Lead author Andrew Macintosh is available at macintosha@law.anu.edu.au.