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Extended protection for Australian seas in ‘world first’ reserve network

Dugong at Sydney Aquarium. Photo by Christian Haugen via Flickr under creative commons.

Australia’s government has unveiled its final plans for the world’s largest network of marine reserves, and assuaged the fears of many conservationists who said that earlier proposals did not go far enough in protecting the country’s unique wildlife.

If the plans make it into national law — as is widely expected – Australia will have 3.1 million square kilometres of marine reserves around its coasts, protecting animals ranging from dugong to corals.

When drafts of the plans were released last year many scientists were highly critical, especially at the perceived lack of protection for the Coral Sea off the north-east coast (see ‘Australia’s marine plans questioned‘).

Speaking this morning, environment minister Tony Burke said that the Coral Sea reserve would be “the jewel in the crown” of the marine reserve network.

“There was a significant call during the consultation period for there to be more protection of the majestic reefs of the Coral Sea,” admitted Burke. “Today, in the maps that are released, we have extended the draft boundaries.”

A new protected zone has been added in the south of the region and boundaries in the north have also been moved, in the process providing more protection to a series of highly biodiverse reefs (see maps: draft, final).

Burke also announced extensions to the southwest region reserves, early plans of which had also attracted criticism from researchers (see ‘Ocean conservation: Uncertain sanctuary‘). In total there are five regions — Coral Sea, South-West, Temperate East, North and North-west — which combine new protected zones with existing ones to try and create a ‘representative network’ that covers all habitat types and species. Australia’s attempt to map and zone all of its coastal waters represents the most ambitious such scheme in the world.

Jay Nelson, director of the Global Ocean Legacy project at the Pew Environment Group, says that some species of tuna, shark and other wide-ranging fish that live in the Coral Sea will now have a protected place where they will spend most of their lives. This is a not insignificant achievement when many marine reserves are less than 5 square kilometres in size, barely large enough to safeguard a wandering scallop.

“No other government on Earth has done what the Australian government has done in doing a comprehensive look at their marine waters and doing a good faith effort to manage it better. This is a first globally,” he says.

The plans will now go out for public consultation, although this is strictly a yes or no question at this point. The government expects the reserves to become law at the end of this year.


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