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Govt takes first big step to protect the Coral Sea

Conservation groups today welcomed the announcement by Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett to establish a conservation zone over the entire Coral Sea within Australian waters and called on the Minister to ensure sufficient resources for his Department to carry out a full and prompt assessment of the area.

The groups believe the Minister’s announcement signals a clear intent by the Government to permanently protect this tropical marine jewel in its entirety, a decision that would make the Coral Sea the largest protected area on Earth.

“The Coral Sea (within Australian jurisdiction) is about 1 million square kilometres,” said Chris Smyth of the Australian Conservation Foundation. “A single large no-take reserve, like a National Park on land, is the most appropriate way to protect it, in order to conserve the highly mobile ocean species found in the area.”

“Despite its environmental and historic importance, less than one percent of Australia’s Coral Sea is protected from extractive industries and its future is not secure,” said Elise Hawthorne of the Pew Environment Group - Australia. “The extraordinary historic and natural value of the Coral Sea offers the Australian Government an unparalleled opportunity to protect a vast area of the world’s threatened ocean, right next to the Great Barrier Reef.”

In September last year, a unique alliance including Australia’s leading tropical marine scientists, former Chiefs of the Navy, and regional, national and international conservation groups launched a call for the Coral Sea to be protected as a no-take marine reserve in recognition of the region’s importance to Australia’s national maritime history and its natural heritage.

The Coral Sea has an important maritime history. In May 1942, it was the site of a naval engagement that turned the tide of World War II in the Pacific. A number of Allied and Japanese ships were sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea and more than 200 sailors lost their lives; they should be allowed to remain undisturbed.

In addition, the Coral Sea hosts spectacular coral reefs, remote islands, towering underwater mountains and deep-sea canyons. Its abundant wildlife includes approximately 25 species of whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and rays; seabirds; large ocean fish such as tuna, marlin, barracuda and swordfish and a diverse range of corals and reef fish.

“The Coral Sea is one of the last remaining places on Earth where populations of large ocean fish – sharks, tuna and billfish – have not been drastically reduced,” said Nicola Temple of the Australian Marine Conservation Society. “With 90 per cent of large ocean fish gone from the world’s oceans over the last 50 years due to overfishing, this makes the Coral Sea worthy of a high level of protection.”

“The proposed Heritage Park lies between the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and our maritime boundary with Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia. Due to its remoteness from land, the Coral Sea has remained relatively unspoiled,” said Steve Ryan of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre.