Australia planning world’s largest marine sanctuary

Coral Sea preserve could be vital regional biodiversity reservoir

The Coral Sea preserve could be an important refuge for sea turtles. PHOTO COURTESY NOAA.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY —Two leading scientists are urging Australians to support a government plan to create one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries in the Coral Sea.

“The Coral Sea is one of a handful of places in the world where a very large oceanic no-take park can be created and monitored in a single national jurisdiction,” said Professors Terry Hughes and Bob Pressey of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University. “Public comment on the proposal is now open – and it is time for all Australians to have their say.”

Details of the Commonwealth’s Coral Sea Marine Park proposal are available at Public comment closes on February 24, 2012.

“It is vital that we protect the Coral Sea’s immense environmental and heritage values from the escalating threats of overfishing and climate change while there is still time to do so,” Hughes said. “We consider that more of the park should be closed to fishing, to set a new international standard in marine care.”

Scientific evidence is amassing that global marine ecosystems have been extensively degraded by overfishing, pollution and man-made global warming. The Coral Sea is one of the few regions where these impacts have been relatively small.

Eleven percent of the Earth’s land habitats are now set aside as national parks to conserve their biodiversity and ecosystem services; in contrast, less than 0.1 percent of the world’s oceans are fully protected, the researchers point out.

“The decision to create the world’s largest protected ocean ecosystem will enhance Australia’s reputation as a world leader in the stewardship of marine biodiversity and will set a new global benchmark for large-scale protection” said Pressey, who specializes in conservation planning and the design of marine parks.

The Coral Sea provides critical habitats for many species, including critically endangered Hawksbill and endangered Green turtles, 25 species of whales and dolphins and 27 species of seabird. At least 13 species of seabird breed on Coral Sea islands, including regionally important populations of the red-footed Booby, least frigate bird and greater frigate bird. It is one of the few places on Earth where large pelagic fishes (tuna, billfish and sharks) have not yet been severely depleted.

“The unsustainable bycatch of turtles, sharks and birds in ocean fisheries, and the rapid decline of large sharks from illegal finning are major concerns worldwide. They warrant immediate intervention to prevent serious long-term damage,” said Hughes.

“The Government’s proposal to ban pelagic longlines — kilometer-long fishing lines with hundreds of hooks — across two thirds of the Coral Sea Park is an important step forward. However, we believe the Government should consider going further, and exclude longlines altogether. It can compensate the very small number of commercial operators who are fishing the area today,” he said.

“It will be far cheaper to manage the Coral Sea as a single, large no-take area rather than the proposed combination of four separate zones, which include no-take and recreation-only fishing areas,” said Pressey, who has published a detailed economic analysis of the options.

“The present plan can be improved by offering more protection to oceanic coral reefs that are close to the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The Coral Sea acts as a vital reservoir for reef biodiversity during rapid changes in climate and sea level. It is relatively free from the land-based pollution that affects inshore and mid-shelf coral reefs in the GBR. And it has much lower levels of fishing.”

Professor Hughes said the present plan’s provision of a zone for unrestricted catch-and-release recreational fishing is unwise, because the released fish will have an unacceptably low chance of survival.

“The area still has healthy shark populations, and released reef or pelagic fish will simply be fast food for sharks,” he cautions. “It will be simpler, cheaper and more effective from a conservation viewpoint to protect the whole Coral Sea area as one no-take zone.”

“We know from our other research that no-take areas within the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) Marine Park export larvae to surrounding fished areas, and help to maintain fish stocks and fisheries. Preserving more of the Coral Sea along the outer edge of the GBR will also benefit fishers, both commercial and recreational, by replenishing fish stocks that are harvested closer to the mainland coast.”



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