Australia Creates World’s Largest Marine Reserve Network

The plan will protect the Coral Sea as well as pygmy blue whale habitat off the southern coast of Western Australia

Osprey Reef, one of five reefs that will have have full national park-level protection in Australia.
Osprey Reef, one of five reefs that will have have full national park-level protection in Australia. Image courtesy of Undersea Productions

Australia will establish the world’s largest network of marine reserves, the country’s environment minister, Tony Burke, announced yesterday evening. The reserves will cover nearly 1.2 million square miles—a third of the nation’s waters—of reef and marine life around the country’s borders.

The plan, which introduces a series of 60 reserves, will protect the Coral Sea, as well as pygmy blue whale habitats off the southern coast of Western Australia. It will curb commercial and recreational fishing. The Coral Sea reserve, which includes 25 reef systems, will become the second largest “no-take”—or fully protected—marine sanctuary after the Chagos Island Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean. This part of Australia’s proposed marine reserve system will span 194,000 square miles as a part of a larger marine protected area in the Coral Sea that covers 386,100 square miles, according to the Pew Environment Group’s press release.

Jay Nelson, Director of Global Ocean Legacy, a project of the Pew Environment Group that focuses on conservation of the Coral Sea and other areas, says that Australia’s government has gone beyond what any other in the world has done.

“This is the first country that has taken a comprehensive look at their marine zone and made an attempt to do so in a comprehensive way,” Nelson says. “They struck a balance of various uses—areas have been set aside for research and education but there are also areas that have been set aside largely for fishing. Every government has to do that.”

The reserves are mapped out in zones, offering different levels of protection, some of which will allow mining in “multiple use zones” and certain types of commercial fishing. Shared resources, particularly five reefs in the sea that lie beyond the Great Barrier Reef, will now have full national park-level protection, including the Osprey Reef.

The difference between a “no take” and “take” area is dramatic, Nelson says. Fishing and other activities such as oil drilling, which will still be allowed in some designated areas, cause significant alterations to the ecosystem.

“There are very few places in the world—less than the number of fingers on your hand—where the protection is so expansive that you could basically save the entire ecosystem,” Nelson says.  “The ocean is fluid—what occurs in one place also occurs in other places nearby. Unless you get a very large area protected, there are many parts of the ecosystem that don’t really receive much benefit. In we have a lot of wide-ranging species like tuna, turtles sharks, and others that will now have an area that they will spend most of their lives in.”

Next week Burke will take his plans to the Rio+20 summit, the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development, which will focus on two areas: a green economy in the context of poverty eradication and sustainable development and an institutional framework for sustainable development. Australia has made it clear that ocean conservation and management are crucial to the world’s economic environmental prosperity.

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