Australia plans to create the world’s largest network of marine reserves, encompassing a 3.1 million square kilometer patchwork of coastal waters, the government announced Thursday.
The move is aimed at balancing protection for the country’s delicate reefs and marine life, which are facing growing environmental pressures, with the demands of its booming resource-driven economy.
Under the plan unveiled by Tony Burke, the minister for sustainability, environment, water, population and communities, fishing and oil and gas exploration would be restricted in nearly one-third of Australia’s territorial waters, an area of 1.2 million square miles that includes the pristine Coral Sea off the country’s northeastern coast and the iconic Great Barrier Reef.
The health of that World Heritage-listed site has become a major concern, as scientists have warned that climate change and population pressures pose threats to its long-term survival.
“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.”
The number of marine reserves would rise to 60 from the current 27, which cover 800,000 square kilometers of protected waters.
The proposal is expected to be approved by Parliament and take effect late this year.
Mr. Burke said that the government expects to pay about 100 million Australian dollars, or $99.3 million, to the fishing industry in compensation for the new restrictions.
But the plan drew mixed reviews from environmental groups, which, while broadly supportive of the overall goal of sheltering delicate marine ecosystems from exploitation, complained that it did not go far enough to safeguard areas that are rich in oil and natural gas reserves or under pressure from industrial fishing.
The Australian Conservation Foundation, a leading environmental group, welcomed the protections the plan would grant to areas that it said are home to 45 of the world’s 78 whale and dolphin species, six of the seven known species of marine turtle, and 4,000 fish species.
The foundation was more critical of exemptions for exploration in energy-rich areas, particularly along the coast of Western Australia.
“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,” the foundation’s executive director, Don Henry, said in a statement.
“Although the reserve network bans oil and gas exploration in the Coral Sea, the northwest region has been left vulnerable to these threats,” he said. Albany Canyons and Rowley Shoals off Western Australia and the Gulf of Carpentaria are two other areas of particular concern that are not covered under the plan, he said.
Deakin University and Parks Victoria marine scientists have captured rare video of fish and other marine creatures living off the coast of Western Victoria, 100 metres below the ocean surface.
This project is essentially a census of the fish population and will tell us about what fish live where, how many of them there are, what their habitat looks like and how they interact with other species and across habitats.
The results of the research will help inform management of marine parks.
Last month, Martin Ferguson, the minister for resources and energy, opened up 27 new areas for oil and gas exploration, even though these had been under consideration for marine protection, raising concerns among environmental groups and advocates for the fishing industry about concessions made to the mining sector in mapping out the reserves.
Among the areas excluded from the plan are resource-rich swaths off the west coast and in the Great Australian Bight — a massive open bay off the central and western portions of the country’s southern coastline.
That led critics like Senator Rachel Siewert, a spokeswoman on marine issues for the Greens party, which supports Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s minority Labor government, to criticize the proposal as a “cave-in to the oil and gas industry.”
“I am disappointed that, despite the significant scientific evidence demonstrating the conservation values of these areas, the short-term gains of the resources boom have won out over long-term planning,” she said on her Web site.
The planned expansion of the reserves continues the bipartisan work of successive administrations, beginning in 1998 with the oceans policy of the Liberal prime minister, John Howard.
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