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Coral Sea Reserve plans revealed

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The proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve was released today, and it could become the biggest marine reserve in the world. But is it good enough?

Coral Sea underwater beauty

Credit: Lucy Trippett

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Today, the Australian government announced their proposed plan to make the world’s largest marine protected area in the Coral Sea off the eastern coast of Queensland.

The proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve covers approximately 989,842 km2 in an area of ocean more than half the size of Queensland.

“Although we are still to complete our consultation process and declare a final network, Australia is on track to deliver a world-leading system of marine reserves which will include examples of all the different marine ecosystems and habitats found in Australian waters,” says Environment Minister Tony Burke.

“It’s more than conservation – it’s about making sure the future of our oceans is one of strength and resilience,” said Burke.

The reserve would be remote – the nearest point being more than 60 km from the coast and extending out to 1,100 km from mainland Australia.

Environment groups welcome the landmark proposal, but say that ultimately it falls short of fully protecting the area’s fragile coral reefs and spectacular marine life. Despite the very low value of the Coral Sea Fishery, the Australian government has opted to keep the reefs in the heart of the Coral Sea open to commercial fishing.

While oil and gas extraction, and a ban on destructive fishing methods would be banned in the proposed reserve, “protection levels need to be stronger – particularly in vulnerable areas – to ensure the Coral Sea’s long-term protection,” said Imogen Zethoven of the Pew Environment Group.

Darren Kindleysides of the Australian Marine Conservation Society also criticises the proposal because “only the eastern half of this ocean treasure has been set aside as a safe haven for marine life. The western half contains most of the species-rich coral reefs and critical spawning sites for black marlin and threatened tuna”.

“Full protection of the western half is consistent with the government’s 2010 election commitment to secure the highest level of protection for important and special places in Australia’s oceans,” said Don Henry of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“Many of the jewels in the crown of the Coral Sea remain unprotected – only two of about 25 unprotected reefs are given a high level of protection,” said Steve Ryan of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre.

The Pew Environment Group says that most of the Coral Sea sites important for the protection of key species will not receive full protection under the Australian government’s plan. These include:

• Osprey Reef which is considered one of the world’s top 10 shark dive sites;
• The reefs in the blue heart of the Coral Sea which are breeding and feeding sites for a whole host of wildlife including turtles and seabirds;
• Spawning sites for black marlin; for globally vulnerable bigeye tuna; and for near threatened yellowfin tuna;
• Marion Reef, a focal point for many large ocean fish;
• The underwater volcanoes in the southern Coral Sea which are a globally significant hotspot for top ocean predators such as sharks, tuna and marlin.

“Around the world, the blue part of the planet only about one per cent has any form of protection,” says Dr Sylvia Earle, explorer-in-residence at National Geographic and former chief scientist of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “And a fraction of that one per cent is fully protected, where fish and other wild creatures have safe havens.”

In the past 50 years, more than 90 per cent the big fish globally have been dragged up, eaten or thrown away. “How many more can we extract before they’re all gone?” asks Earle.

Earle met with Minister Burke this week to express her concern for vulnerable ocean ecosystems and their need for protection.

“The world needs the kind of leadership that the Australia has shown in the past with the establishment of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, about four per cent of Australia’s waters now are protected in some form and only about one per cent has any form of protection globally. So already, Australia is out in front, but that’s not enough to secure protection and security,” says Earle.

A three month consultation period starts today. For more information on the proposed reserve, including details of the public information sessions held across Queensland, visit www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/index.html.

To send a ‘rapid submission’ showing your support for stronger protection of the Coral Sea, visit www.protectourcoralsea.org.au.