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THE Australian Government announced today the proposed establishment of the world's largest marine protected area in the waters of the Coral Sea that fall within Australia's Exclusive Economic Zone.

Environment Minister Tony Burke said the Coral Sea was recognised across the world as a marine region of significance for its unique biodiversity. And in Australian waters the environment is in near pristine condition.

The proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve covers approximately 989,842 square kilometres - an area of ocean more than half the size of Queensland.

The western side of the reserve has taken into account recreational and charter fishing as a use.

"Australia's vast oceans provide a source of food and resources, and are a place of recreation. But we cannot afford to be complacent," Mr Burke said.

"In the space of one lifetime, the world's oceans have gone from being relatively pristine to being under increasing pressure.

"The environmental significance of the Coral Sea lies in its diverse array of coral reefs, sandy cays, deep sea plains and canyons. It contains more than 20 outstanding examples of isolated tropical reefs, sandy cays and islands.

"There is no other part of Australia's territory where so much comes together – pristine oceans, magnificent coral, a military history which has helped define us and now a clear proposal for permanent protection."

The shallow reef systems of the Coral Sea support tropical ecosystems abundant in hard and soft corals, sponges, algae, fish communities and other creatures such as nautilus and sea stars. Many of the reefs are known for their high densities of shark species.

The Coral Sea islands support critical nesting sites for the green turtle and a range of seabird species. It is also renowned for its diversity of predatory fish, such as albacore, yellowfin and bigeye tuna, broadbill swordfish, black marlin and mako sharks.

Beyond the shallower waters lie deep sea troughs and canyons, open ocean reefs and undersea mountains - and while much of the area is relatively unexplored, it is likely to support unique deepwater ecosystems. Recent discoveries have included deep, cold water coral communities.

Several important species found in the Coral Sea are under pressure elsewhere from over-harvesting and habitat degradation. It is a refuge for many iconic species under serious threat.

"Australia has a unique opportunity to protect this precious marine environment for future generations," Mr Burke said.

"That's why our Marine Bioregional Planning Programme is so important. It is more than conservation - it's about making sure the future of our oceans is one of strength and resilience."

Mr Burke said the proposed Coral Sea Marine Reserve is the last component of the Gillard Government's proposed network of marine reserves around Australia.

"Although we are still to complete our consultation process and declare a final network, Australia is on track to deliver a world-leading system of marine reserves which will include examples of all the different marine ecosystems and habitats found in Australian waters," Mr Burke said.

The proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve is remote. The nearest point is more than 60 kilometres from the coast and it extends out to 1100 kilometres from the mainland.

"Now there will be a further opportunity for these stakeholders and regional communities to have their say in this important process. I encourage people to get involved," Mr Burke said.

"We extended the 60-day consultation period to 90 days to ensure people have every opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed Coral Sea Marine Reserve. The feedback and input the Government receives will assist in finalising the proposal."

The Protect Our Coral Sea coalition has called the Australian federal government’s draft Coral Sea plan a good start, but said it falls short of fully protecting the area’s fragile coral reefs and spectacular marine life.

“We welcome the exclusion of oil and gas extraction and the ban on fishing gear that destroys seafloor habitats,” said Imogen Zethoven of the Pew Environment Group. “However, protection levels need to be stronger—particularly in vulnerable areas— to ensure the Coral Sea’s long-term preservation.”

“Only the eastern half of this ocean treasure has been set aside as a safe haven for marine life. The western half contains most of the species-rich coral reefs and critical spawning sites for black marlin and threatened tuna,” said Darren Kindleysides of the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“Many of the jewels in the crown of the Coral Sea remain unprotected—only two of about 25 unprotected reefs are given a high level of protection,” said Steve Ryan of the Cairns and Far North Environment Centre.

“Full protection of the western half is consistent with the government’s 2010 election commitment to secure the highest level of protection for important and special places in Australia’s oceans,” said Don Henry of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

“The Coral Sea is our marine Serengeti. Large and spectacular ocean wildlife such as tuna, marlin, and sharks are still found in healthy numbers, making it a special place on a global scale,” said David Roe of Project AWARE.

“Minister Burke has a rare opportunity to create a lasting ocean legacy and demonstrate global leadership in ocean conservation. Protecting special places in our oceans, like the Coral Sea, delivers long-term benefits for us all,” said Isabel McCrea of the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

For more information on the proposed Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve, including details of public information sessions scheduled across the region, go to www.environment.gov.au/coasts/mbp/index.html.

More Protection Needed in Government’s Landmark Proposal for the Coral Sea.

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