SYDNEY - Australia plans to create the world’s largest network of marine reserves, encompassing a 1.2 million square mile 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,’’ 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 about 497,000 square miles of protected waters. The proposal is expected to be approved by Parliament and take effect late this year. Burke said that the government expects to pay about $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.
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.