Australia creates world’s largest network of marine reserves

In November 2012 the Australian Government announced the creation of the world’s largest network of marine reserves. The government proclaimed 44 marine reserves a network, covering 2.3 million square kilometres, a full third of Australia’s ocean territory. The reserves 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 government received support from over 500,000 Australians, who commented positively on the creation of the network.

Lionfish swimming around the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

“The marine reserves will protect a diversity of Australia’s ocean ecosystems, including reefs and waters in the Coral Sea, majestic seamounts off the east coast, the mysterious deep waters of the Diamantina Fracture Zone and the waters of the Great Australian Bight,” said Dr. Paul Sinclair, the Healthy Ecosystems Programme Manager for the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The announcement includes ocean areas that harbor some of the world’s richest marine biodiversity, and the resulting network will further protect fish stocks and fragile and critical marine environments, according to Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the Director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland.

Though the reserve system is being hailed as a major step forward for Australia’s marine protected areas and biodiversity, their effectiveness depends in large part on their location, which is not ideal, according to Bob Pressey, Professor at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. “For the sake of marine biodiversity, we must get away from the idea that progress in establishing MPAs can be measured in square kilometers,” says Pressey. “MPAs, as their name implies, are meant to protect. That does not happen if they are designed to avoid all or most of the processes threatening marine biodiversity.”

An analysis of the new network by Pressey shows that the reserves have mostly been placed as far as possible from shore, so are concentrated at the outer edges of Australia’s marine jurisdiction, much of which is outside of commercial and other activities that threaten biodiversity. Pressey also states that the reserves offer little or no protection to many of the 41 provincial bioregions that define Australia’s marine biodiversity. “When MPAs are ‘residual’ to commercial uses – located to avoid impinging on fishing and extraction of oil and gas – they do not protect marine biodiversity: they just take up space, while giving the impression of conservation progress,” says Pressey.

The reserves are nevertheless being hailed as a big step forward in a process that began in 1998, and which could lead to further exploration to protect waters around Australia. Much of the country’s vast ocean territory has yet to be fully explored. The first comprehensive Census of Marine Life, published in 2010, revealed that as much as 80 percent of marine life in Australia’s oceans has yet to be named. Professor Hoegh-Guldberg says, "So little is still known about our oceans and new discoveries occur regularly. Ninety-five per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is still to be discovered. New discoveries will only increase as science research expands to take advantage of the opportunities for discovery in the new national system of marine parks."

The Australian Government will soon be determining how it will manage the new marine reserve network. The Australian Marine Conservation Society is calling on the process to lead to improvements to zoning in a number of critical areas, as well as adequate resources and best practices management and surveillance activities in the new areas.

For a copy of Bob Pressey’s analysis on the new network,

please contact Bob at:[email protected]

Work area: 
Protected Areas
North America
North America
North America
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