The creation of 44 marine parks across Australia will make about one-third of Australian waters off-limits to fishing, oil and gas exploration. The new marine parks, which include the Coral Sea and the southwest coast of Western Australia, are part of the new marine reserves announced by Environment Minister Tony Burke on Thursday.
As countries prepare to meet for the Rio+20 meeting on sustainable development, Australia has created the world’s biggest network of marine protected areas, setting an important precedent for ocean protection.
Dubbed as the world's first network of marine reserves, the new reserves cover 3.1 million square kilometers. Mr Burke unveiled the marine reserve maps at Sydney Aquarium.
"The 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 Australian Financial Review quoted Mr Burke.
While Pew, an environment group, lauded the marine reserve plan because it represents a turning point in marine protection, it warned that certain areas outside the marine parks are still at risk to threats of oil spills. Pew spokeswoman Michelle Grady identified these areas as the Margaret River, the Kangaroo Island which is a blue whale feeding ground and the Kimberely Coast where extraordinary coral reefs are found at its Rowley Shoals.
To appease commercials fishers who would be affected by the enlargement of protected marine areas, the government will provide them some compensation.
Mr Burke explained that the reserves would have different levels of protection from an outright bank of commercial fishing and mining to the identification of multiple-use zones that would permit some activities.
The declaration, however, places Mr Burke in a collision course with Resources Minister Martin Ferguson who announced recently that 27 new areas were tagged as zones for oil and gas exploration. Some of them are in or near the marine park territories.
Fishing groups complained that the areas appear to focus on their industry while it left unaffected promising areas for oil and gas such as the north-west and the Great Australian Bight.
"It exempts oil and gas virtually together... The government clearly takes a position, which to some extent we understand, that energy security is more important as a revenue generator. We're certainly the soft target," The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Commonwealth Fisheries Association spokesman Brian Jeffriess.
While the areas include top dive spots in the world such as Marion Reef, Bougainville Reef, Verna Reef, Shark Reef and Osprey Reef, environmental groups pointed out that the covered area fell short of their demand to ban all commercial fishing in the Coral Sea.
However, there is still a final consultation process that needs to be completed before the government finalises the initiative.
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