CANBERRA: Australia will create the largest network of marine parks in the world, protecting waters covering an area as large as India while banning oil and gas exploration and limiting commercial fishing in some of the most sensitive areas.
Australia's marine reserves will increases from 27 to 60 under the new scheme, covering more than 3 million sq. km., or one third of the country's waters.
The announcement of the network was made a week before more than 130 heads of state and government will gather in Rio de Janeiro for the United Nations sustainable development conference as part of global efforts to curb climate change, one of the biggest conferences in UN history.
New reserves will be established from the Perth Canyon in the southwest to Kangaroo Island off the southern coast, but the “Jewel in the Crown” will be the protection of the Coral Sea area which surrounds the Great Barrier Reef in the northeast, Environment Minister Tony Burke said on Thursday.
“The Coral Sea marine national park combined with the Great Barrier Reef area becomes the largest marine protected area in the world,” Burke said.
The protection plan will ban oil and gas exploration in marine national parks and have an impact on the fishing industry as well, Burke said.
However, wildlife and environmental groups said the steps did not go far enough to protect marine mammals from the impact of oil and gas exploration in many areas.
“The oil and gas industry is the elephant in the room,” said Matthew Collis, a campaigner for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. “Offshore petroleum exploration hasn't been addressed properly by this process.”
“This is bad news for whales and dolphins because many of the areas where industry operates or wants to operate are also important habitats for whales and dolphins,” he said.
Earlier this month, a United Nations report said Australia's Great Barrier Reef was under threat from industrial development and may be considered for listing as a world heritage site “in danger” within the next year.
Last week, Australia delayed environmental approval for a A$10 billion ($9.7 billion) coal project proposed by India's GVK Power & Infrastructure in Queensland, which would increase shipping traffic through the Great Barrier Reef.