Great Barrier Reef protection to increase

One-third of the Great Barrier Reef—an area almost the size of Japan—is to be turned into a protected area under conservation plans announced on Wednesday by the Australian government.

The proposals will add nearly 100 000 square kilometres, seven times the area currently protected, to the safeguarded region of the reef in which fishing is banned and only tourism is permitted. They are expected to come into force by the middle of next year.

The plans were prompted by increasing concern about damage caused to the reef.

“This will provide the largest network of protected marine areas in the world, and is the largest marine protection plan in the history of the Great Barrier Reef,” said the environment minister, David Kemp.

Strong opposition to the plans was expected when draft proposals were issued in June, in particular from Queensland’s fishing industry, which claims the reforms could cost 250 jobs.

But fishing on the reef generates only £46-million for the local economy, while the tourist industry is worth £1,7-billion, with 1,3-million commercial dives made each year.

A compensation package for the fishing industry was announced last month. Environmentalists welcomed the move, but said more needed to be done to protect the world heritage-listed ecosystem.

A declaration signed bylead ing marine biologists last year said fishing should be banned in up to 50% of coral reef zones to preserve biodiversity.

Don Henry, the executive director of the Australian Conservation Foundation, said the proposals would solve only some of the reef’s problems.

“This is obviously a great improvement but leaves unanswered key environmental issues facing the reef, such as land-based pollution, the effects of climate change and the threat of oil exploration offshore,” he said.

Experts said less dramatic proposals to end land clearing in Queensland by the timber industry would be just as important to the protection of the reef, since agricultural runoff is considered a major threat to marine ecosystems.

Global warming is also thought to be a serious long-term risk.
Coral bleaching, a fatal condition which can be triggered by ocean temperature rises of as little as 1C, has become increasingly common on the reef in recent years.

The Greens senator Bob Brown said the plans would still not provide enough protection for endangered marine animals such as dugongs, an aquatic mammal living solely on seagrass, and turtles in crucial areas including Bowling Green bay, Princess Charlotte bay and Repulse bay.

“Some key areas have been left out,” he said. “That means protection for the magnificent and endangered dugong and the Irrawaddy porpoise is going to be reduced, because commercial netting is now allowed where is wasn’t.”

The Great Barrier Reef marine park has 2 900 reefs which are home to 1 500 species of fish, 4 000 molluscs, 350 corals and 350 species of starfish, sea cucumbers and sea urchins. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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