The Australian government today revealed a plan that will add 44 large-scale marine reserves to the national network. The move will establish the island nation’s oceans as the most well-protected in the world.

According to Environment Minister Tony Burke, the government’s aim was to protect Australia’s unique marine environment, “while supporting coastal communities and marine industries around the country.” Australia has the third largest ocean territory in the world that stretches from the tropics to the sub-Antarctic and is home to incredible creatures such as whales, dolphins, turtles and sharks as well as spectacular corals and other ecosystems.

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The new Commonwealth marine reserves network will cover over 1 millions square miles of ocean, and will afford increased protection for a number of iconic reefs that are important for marine turtles and large ocean predators. The system will now include:

The Coral Sea Region which covers an area of more than half the size of Queensland and supports critical nesting sites for the green turtle and is renowned for its diversity of big predatory fish and sharks.

The South-West Marine Region which is of global significance as a breeding and feeding ground for a number of protected marine species such as southern right whales, blue whales and the Australian Sea Lion.

The Temperate East Marine Region which is home to the critically endangered east coast population of grey nurse shark, the vulnerable white shark and has important offshore reef habitat at Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs and Lord Howe Island that support the threatened black cod.

The North Marine Region which houses globally important nesting and resting areas for threatened marine turtle species including flatback, hawksbill, green and olive ridley turtles.

The North-West Marine Region which is home to the whale shark which is the world’s largest fish and provides protection to the world’s largest population of humpback whales that migrate annually from Antarctica to give birth in the water off the Kimberley.

The decision to launch such a massive expansion of the existing marine reserves was not one Australians entered into lightly. Over the past 12 months, the government consulted with marine and tourism business representatives, environmental groups and thousands of public citizens through 250 meetings across the country.

Government agencies also carried out a socio-economic assessment of each of the final regional marine reserves network proposals. The assessments looked at both the direct and indirect impacts of the proposed networks on the fishing industry — including possible impacts on the communities that rely on these industries for jobs and economic activity. Over the coming months, government officials will consult the fishing industry and fisheries management agencies on the design and implementation of a fisheries adjustment assistance package to ensure a smooth transition.

“We now go through one final 60 day consultation period. It’s too late for people to say I want this line shifted or I want this zone painted a different color,”  Burke said. “The question now is very straight forward. Do we go ahead with the most comprehensive marine park network in the world or do we not?”

It is expected that the final marine reserves will be declared before the end of the 2012.

Photo credit: steve.lucas74/Flickr

Graphic credit: Commonwealth of Australia