Australia Creates World's Biggest Marine Park

Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke has made a historic announcement: the country is setting aside a third of its ocean to create the world’s largest network of marine parks.

The area, the size of India, will be off limits to oil and gas exploration, and fishing will be limited in the most sensitive areas.

Three million square kilometers of water will be preserved, raising the number of marine reserves from 27 to 60.

The crown jewel is protection of the Coral Sea, which surrounds the Great Barrier Reef, the largest marine protected area in the world and one of the last intact tropical ocean systems. The Coral Sea is about the same size as Spain.

Half of the 1 million-square-kilometer Coral Sea (386,100 square miles) will be designated a no-take National Park zone, where no fishing will be allowed, and the other half will be a marine protected area.

Earlier this month, the United Nations warned that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was so threated by industrial development that it would consider listing it as a world heritage site "in danger" within the next year.

Through efforts led by the Pew Environment Group, more than 485,000 people from across Australia and around the world publicly declared their support for strong protection of the Coral Sea, the highest level of public support ever received by the Australian government on an environmental issue. And 300 marine scientists from 35 countries, including Australia, endorsed the need to protect the Coral Sea.

"The Coral Sea is one of the last remaining places on Earth with healthy populations of large ocean-voyaging species, such as deepwater sharks, tuna, and marlin," says Imogen Zethoven of the Pew Environment Group in Australia."

Australia’s southwest, north, and northwest marine regions, harbor some of the world’s most diverse and unique sea life, including thousands of fish and other marine species found nowhere else and threatened species, such as blue whales and Australian sea lions.

Last week, Australia postponed environmental permits for a $9.7 billion coal project that would increase shipping traffic through the Great Barrier Reef.

Government conservatives and fisherman objected to closing big areas to commercial fishing and tourism, and conservation groups applaud the government’s decision, but want it to go further.

They say the plan still doesn’t protect marine animals like whales and dolphins from oil and gas development and the lines were drawn to satisfy that industry. Many of the areas left for drilling are important habitats for whales and dolphins.

"The oil spills and ship groundings in recent years have shown the range of threats facing our oceans. It is important that we get the balance right by ensuring places are set aside for conservation as well as having well-managed, ocean use," says Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of World Wildlife Fund – Australia.

"While this is a big step forward, oil and gas rigs are still moving closer to places like the stunning Rowley Shoals and Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia," he says.

Australia made the decision in advance of next week’s Rio+20 Earth Summit, where the health of the worlds oceans is a major agenda item.

This week, California set aside Marine Protected Areas along its north coast, completing a preserve network from Mexico to the Oregon state line.

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