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Australia sets aside 40 percent of its waters for protection

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.
Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. Photo by: Rhett A. Butler.

In an announcement to coincide with the beginnings of the UN’s Rio+20 Summit on Sustainable Development, Australia has announced ambitious plans to protect 3.1 million square kilometers (1.19 million square miles) of its ocean, including the Coral Sea. If enacted, the proposition will increase Australia’s marine protected areas from 27 to 60, covering about 40 percent of Australia’s waters.

“This is the largest network of marine reserves anywhere in the world,” Environment Minister Tony Burke said. “What we’ve done is effectively create a national parks estate in the ocean. But, I think the jewel in the crown in the whole thing would have to be the Coral Sea. And, this is the area that sort of extends out from the Great Barrier Reef marine park right to the edge of Commonwealth waters.”

The new reserves will not mean full protection every where, but includes tougher regulations on fisheries as well as bans on oil and gas exploitation. The government said it is developing compensation packages for fishermen that will likely total around a $100 million, but the fisheries industry is not happy about the announcement.

“The real issue here today is that that package should have been announced with the boundaries themselves,” Brian Jeffriess, of the Commonwealth Fisheries Association, told ABC. He warned that the new restrictions could devastate fishermen and coastal communities. Others have said the restriction will raise the local price of seafood. The government has said there will be a 60-day consultation period before any parks are gazetted.

Despite fishing industry concerns, recent research shows that establishing marine protected areas could actually help fisheries by increasing overall abundance of target fish, many of which have long been overfished.

Environmental groups were generally pleased with the announcement. The head of the Australian Conservation Foundation, Don Henry, dubbed this a “historic conservation achievement that makes Australia a global leader in ocean protection,” but also warned that “although the reserve network bans oil and gas exploration in the Coral Sea, the north west region has been left vulnerable to these threats.”

The head of WWF-Australia, Dermot O’Gorman, echoed this concern, noting that “oil and gas rigs are still moving closer to places like the stunning Rowley Shoals and Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia.” The Australian Green party’s marine spokesperson, Rachel Siewert, said the parks’ borders were clearly impacted by lobbying from the gas and oil industry.

Many environmental groups had pushed for a complete ban on commercial fishing in the Coral Sea, but the current plans only stiffen regulations in the biodiverse environment, which includes the Great Barrier Reef.

Still, O’Gorman with WWF, said the government’s plan was “a major advance in marine conservation that is both nationally and globally significant,” and added that the announcement should inspire other nations at Rio+20.

But even gazetting a marine area may not be enough. A report last month by the UN warned that the Great Barrier Reef might soon be listed as ‘in danger’ on the UNESCO World Heritage list due to industrial development in the region, including a new port, a new natural gas plant, and rising coal exports through the reef. In the long term the world’s biggest reef is imperiled by climate change and ocean acidification due to burning fossil fuels, of which coal is the most carbon-intensive.

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