The government of New Caledonia voted on Tuesday to establish marine protected areas across 28,000 square kilometers (10,800 square miles) of waters around the French overseas territory, safeguarding coral reefs, marine habitats, and critical bird nesting areas.
The move comes after years of work by conservation groups like WWF, which quickly welcomed the agreement, which applies to five previously unprotected reefs.
“We welcome New Caledonia’s announcement of the classification of its near-pristine coral reefs,” said Hubert Géraux, Manager of WWF-France’s New Caledonia Office, in a statement. “These ecosystems are full of life – the ocean’s equivalent of tropical forests – and France, through its overseas territories, carries an international responsibility for their protection.”
“This is the kind of leadership we need to see in coral reef conservation and we applaud it,” added John Tanzer, leader of WWF International’s oceans program. “With good management, these marine protected areas will help maintain fish populations and ecosystem health that will build the reef’s resilience to the impacts of climate change in future. This leadership must inspire similar action by other governments.”
The new protected areas are part of the 1.3 million square kilometer Natural Park of the Coral Sea of New Caledonia that was created in 2014. Fishing and other extractive activities are banned from the five newly protected reefs: Chesterfield, Bellona, Entrecasteaux, Pétrie and Astrolabe. Entrecasteaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
New Caledonia is known for its rich marine life, including nesting grounds for turtles and sea birds, which attracts large numbers of tourists. The new status will lead to more regulation of tourist activities around the protected reefs.