The Australian government announced plans to construct the largest network of marine reserves in the world, more than doubling the number of coastal reserves to 60 from its existing 27. The new regulations will limit fishing and oil and gas drilling in waters off of the country’s eastern coast, including the vulnerable and endangered Great Barrier Reef and the northeastern Coral Sea. The Australian government expanded the marine reserve system in order to preserve its marine life and balance environmental protections with the needs of its economy, and the new laws will go into effect later this year. Australia is the first country in the world to take such a comprehensive and concerted effort to protect its natural environment and preserve marine biodiversity.
Australian coral reefs and marine ecosystems, particularly the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Great Barrier Reef, are facing extremely high threats due to climate change and ocean acidification. Coral is very sensitive to ocean temperatures, and even a slight fluctuation can cause levels of beneficial algae to wane, levels of toxic algae to rise and cover the coral, eventually suffocating it, and corals to die. Irresponsible fishing methods, which often use explosives or harsh chemicals to kill or stun fish, destroy coral reefs by literally blowing them apart. Destruction of coral reefs is a widespread and serious problem that increases as pollution levels, overfishing, and other human-created factors affect the ocean environment more and more.
Although the Great Barrier Reef is not officially listed as endangered, it is suffering from major threats and its population and health have experience a steep decline in recent years. A spectacular example of biodiversity and the world’s largest coral reef, it spans 133,000 square miles and is home to thousands of species of sea turtles, fish, whales, dolphins, plants, coral, and other marine life.
The Coral Sea borders Australia and several small Pacific islands, including Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, and Papua New Guinea. Besides coral, it hosts sea anemones, crabs, sea sponges, and lobsters.
The New York Times reported that Tony Burke said in a statement, “The maps I have released today are most comprehensive network of marine protected areas in the world and represent the largest addition to the conservation estate in Australia’s history,” Mr. Burke said in a statement. “This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations.” Burke is the Australian Minister for Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities.
Because the new reserves, which will cover a total of 3.1 million square kilometers (approximately 1.2 million square miles), will significantly impact fishing in the area, the Australian government will pay its fishing industry $99.3 million ($100 million in Australian dollars) as a consolation prize.
The New York Times said that the protected region houses “45 of the world’s 78 whale and dolphin species” and “six of the seven known species of marine turtle.”
Some environmental groups, such as the Australian Conservation Foundation, say the new reserves don’t protect enough of Australia’s waters, and would like the protections to extend to the oil-rich western coast of the continent. The foundation’s executive director Don Henry said, “With Australia’s magnificent natural endowment of unique marine biodiversity comes a responsibility to protect our oceans from the risks of bottom trawling and oil and gas exploration.”
Others have lauded the initiative for its wide reach and ambition. The World Wildlife Fund said the plan is significant and inspirational on a national and global level, and expects it to make a great contribution to marine conservation.
Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/babasteve/5432661883