Marine park for Coral Sea

Two eminent tropical marine scientists have urged Australians to get behind a plan by the Federal Government to transform nearly a million square kilometres of the Coral Sea into the world’s largest marine park.

Professors Terry Hughes and Bob Pressey, from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies and James Cook University, said the Coral Sea was one of a just a handful of places in the world where a large oceanic no-take park could be created and monitored in a single national jurisdiction.

“Public comment on the proposal is now open – and it is time for all Australians to have their say,” they said.

Prof Hughes said t was vital the Coral Sea’s immense environmental and heritage values were protected from the rapidly escalating threats of overfishing and climate change while there was still time to do so.

“We consider that more of the park should be closed to fishing, to set a new international standard in marine care,” he said.

They said scientific evidence was 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.

Although just 11% of the Earth’s land habitats have been set aside as national parks to conserve their biodiversity and ecosystem services, in contrast, less than 0.1% of the world’s oceans are fully protected, the researchers said.

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

The Coral Sea provides habitats for many species, including the critically endangered hawksbill turtle and endangered green turtle, 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, lesser 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 by-catch 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,” Prof Hughes said.