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Compliance and zoning

On any given day, at (almost) any given time of the year, the Reef Authority’s compliance team is on the water, in the air, and invariably on the job patrolling and preserving Australia’s greatest natural wonder.

And Jake Sanders is certainly no exception.

It’s not so much that his role as a senior compliance officer takes him to some of the most remote and spectacular stretches of the Great Barrier Reef.

It’s not the unique animal interactions, the iconic island backdrops or even the aerial surveys, which provide a stunning bird’s eye view of the world’s best-managed marine park.

For Jake, it’s simply that there’s nowhere else he’d rather be. 

“I’m based out of Gladstone, and I actually grew up here around Agnes Water and 1770, so I haven’t strayed too far.  But if the weather was good – even if it wasn’t - my friends and I were always on the water,” Jake says with a laugh.

“Be it fishing, snorkelling, spearfishing, diving; anything really where we could get out and experience the Reef.” 

He may be a little older and a little wiser, but it seems nothing much has changed. 

Jake still spends as much time on the water in a personal capacity as he does professionally.

  Man leans out of a boat window, holding a Canon camera with a large telephoto lens

“It makes you realise that you have a pretty good job when you spend your days off fishing and spearing in the same locations that you’re patrolling,” he says. 

“I’m personally helping to protect my favourite areas and know that the work we are doing collectively is making a difference.

“I’m very lucky.” 

Modesty aside, luck has little to do with it. 

Jake’s career took root from early in his teenage years. While most of his contemporaries were flipping burgers or mowing lawns, Jake spent his after-school hours working on local tourism boats and was soon skippering intrepid Reef seekers from 1770 to Lady Musgrave Island, and helping them to experience all the southern GBR has to offer. 

Man standing on a beach, holding a fishing rod and smiling

Four years and countless nautical miles later, it would prove the perfect apprenticeship for a career straddling conservation and compliance with the Reef Joint Field Management Program.

The Program is a strategic partnership between the Australian and Queensland governments which delivers practical on-ground actions to protect and maintain well-functioning marine and island ecosystems that support economic, traditional, and recreational uses of the Great Barrier Reef.

So, it’s only fitting that prior to Jake joining the Reef Authority in early 2023, he spent four years plying his trade as a QPWS Marine Park Ranger across posts in Gladstone, Hervey Bay, and Brisbane. 

Man seen from behind, walking towards the beach with a fishing rod in hand

“We were working on everything from natural resource management to campground maintenance to in-water surveys,” Jake says.

“It’s a good grounding and great experience but I found compliance work, and skippering the vessels, was the area of the work that I preferred. 

“I enjoy knowing that we are making a difference for the future, but it’s a big area to look after.”

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park stretches more than 2300km along the Queensland coastline, from Bundaberg in the south, through to the Torres Strait in the tropical north. 

It’s an area roughly the same size as some European countries, Italy and Germany among them, and for those charged with enforcing the Reef’s compliance program on such a grand scale, herein lies the challenge.

To date Jake’s work has taken him as far east as the Coral Sea and, despite being only 24 years old, can confidently lay claim to exploring more of the Marine Park that most people see will in a lifetime. 

“I’ve been lucky enough to travel as far as the Coral Sea; we’ve piloted a police boat almost the entire stretch of the GBR during one operation, experienced some wild weather and seen some pretty bizarre things while out on the water, notably injuries from fishhooks!” Jake says.

“But for the most part it’s incredible and people generally do the right thing.

“Some people are maybe unaware of the rules around zoning in some cases, so we are educating them for future use as much as anything.

“But we still come across a small number of people who are intentionally flouting the rules or trying to poach from protected areas, so we need to be on our game.” 

Zoning rules apply right across the Marine Park and, in the 20 years since their inception, have proven vital to maintaining healthy fish stocks and helping Reef habitats recover from impacts including cyclones, bleaching events, coral disease and crown-of-thorn starfish outbreaks.

“That’s why we do it,” Jake says earnestly. 

“I grew up on the water and fishing is my way of life. 

“The Great Barrier Reef is in everyone hands and we have a responsibility to keep the fish biting for future generations.”

Updated 14 Jun 2024
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