Ted Reckas
Focus turns to managing the vast areas of ocean now under protection.

After years of effort, ocean activists have won a major step for marine conservation, with the Australian government declaring the largest network of marine protected areas in the world, covering 888,035 square miles (2.3 million square kilometers).


The system of protected areas covers a total of 36% of Australian waters, 13% of which are no-take zones, meaning no extraction of any kind, from fishing to oil drilling.


“We don't want people to only know the magnificence of their oceans through aquariums or by watching 'Finding Nemo',” Australia’s Environment Minister Tony Burke was quoted, in a Chicago Tribune article.

Photo courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films.


Oil drilling was banned in the Coral Sea in 1975, but restrictions on drilling in other parts of Australia have been expanded, and protected areas include six different regions with diverse sea life and critically endangered grey nurse sharks, threatened species like the flatback, hawksbill and green sea turtles, as well as humpback whales and white sharks.


“71% of the Coral Sea is protected from long lining, 99.9% from trawling and 100% from oil and gas exploration and mining,” said Imogen Zethoven, Director of the Pew Environment Group’s Coral Sea Campaign in a jubilant email to colleagues.


OWOO supporters and thousands of others signed petitions urging the Australian government to enact the protections, and ocean advocates like Sylvia Earle, Zethoven, and others who have been working toward this outcome for several years point out that much work still needs to be done. Focus now shifts to creating management plans for the protected areas, and it remains to be seen how Australia will deal with enforcement over vast ocean areas, which has proven expensive and difficult elsewhere.


While protected areas have been effective in reducing the impacts of extractive activity, they cannot reverse the effects of climate change, ocean acidification, cyclones or crown of thorns starfish that eat coral, which are cited as the main threats to the Great Barrier Reef. An October report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences said over 50% of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef is gone since 1985 due to the above factors.


The government said it reviewed 80,000 comments from the public, most of which were supportive of the new measures, and a government fund has been established with $100 million AUD to assist impacted fishermen.


The declaration of protections was made on Thursday, Nov 15, and will take effect July 1, 2014.



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