Great Barrier Reef becomes world's largest marine protected area

Posted: 17 December 2004

Australia's Great Barrier Reef has become the world's largest marine protected area, as a new zoning plan comes into effect.

Under the plan, protection of the reef will rise from 4.6 per cent to 33 per cent of the existing Marine Park and World Heritage Area, covering more than 11 million hectares (42,000 miles) - an area equivalent to about half the size of the UK.

Great Barrier Reef

  • More than 2,000km long
  • Home to 1,500 types of fish
  • Only living thing the naked eye can see from space.While tourism will continue in the new, network of marine protected zones, all commercial and recreational fishing is now banned from these areas. The World's largest reef is now officially the world's largest marine protected area.

Stretching 1,400 miles along the Queensland coast, the Great Barrier Reef comprises over 2,900 reefs and 940 islands and cays and is worth more than $57 billion to the international economy - the most economically valuable coral reef in the world.

Ecological value

The reef is also ecologically valuable. It is inhabited by 1,500 species of fish, 359 types of hard coral, 175 species of birds and more than 30 species of mammals, including dugongs and six of the world's seven threatened species of sea turtles.

"This is an historic moment for the Great Barrier Reef and for Australia," said Australian Environment Minister, David Kemp. "The Great Barrier Reef is not only a treasure for Australia but for the world. The plan puts Australia at the cutting edge of reef protection worldwide."

Conservationists say the increased and stricter protection of the Great Barrier Reef has set an example for other countries to follow.

"This win-win for fishermen and the environment," said Scott Burns, Director of WWF's Marine Conservation program. "The Great Barrier Reef's network of protected areas is a global benchmark that sets a precedent for future marine conservation."

Conservationists hope that stricter protection of the Great Barrier Reef should encourage other countries to take similar measures in key marine regions such as the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea in South-East Asia and the Meso-American reef in Central America.

According to WWF, Australia should also increase the protection of the Ningaloo Reef region, off the country's western coast.

Under pressure

Around 0.5 per cent of the oceans and seas are under protection, compared to 12 per cent of protected land area.

Furthermore, 60 per cent of the world's coral reefs are expected to be lost by 2030 if present rates of decline continue.

The new network of highly protected areas will reduce pressure on the Great Barrier Reef and help it overcome large-scale threats such as overfishing, coastal pollution and coral bleaching which is linked to climate change and global warming.

"While we are struggling to contain the long-term threat of global warming, the stricter protection of the Great Barrier Reef will help depleted fish stocks to recover in important spawning sites and nurseries. It will also safeguard key habitat for threatened species such as turtles and dugongs," said Imogen Zethoven, WWF Australia's Great Barrier Reef Campaign Manager. The Great Barrier Reef isn't just one of the world's most precious natural treasures, it is also one of Australia's most valuable tourism assets, generating more than A$4.2 billion (2.7 billion Euros) annually.

According to WWF, the new protected zones have generated unprecedented community interest and support.