Australia today announced the creation of the world’s largest marine reserve, covering the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea. Oil and gas exploration will banned but commercial fishing will be allowed in many areas.

Australia’s marine reserves will increase from 27 to 60, covering one third of the nation’s seas.

The announcement of the reserves was made a week before more than 130 countries congregate for the United Nations’ sustainable development conference in an attempt to limit climate change, one of the biggest conferences in U.N. history.

Environmental groups welcomed the news, with WWF-Australian CEO Dermot O’Gorman saying “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”. However they called for places like Rowley Shoals and Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia to also be protected.

IFAW (Interational Fund for Animal Welfare) commented “The IFAW is pleased to see important parts of the humpback whale nursery in the Kimberley and some southern right whale calving grounds off the south west coast included in the network, but critically important feeding grounds for blue whales…remain insufficiently protected. While northern parts of the Perth Canyons have been protected from oil and gas exploration, the remainder is still open to exploration and the damaging effects that can have on whales. This means that to some extent all three of the recognised blue whale feeding grounds in Australian waters are still open to negative impact from offshore petroleum exploration and production. The Environment Department has had its hands tied throughout the whole process in any attempts to address the threats to marine life from the oil and gas industry. The network, for the most part, addresses areas only where the industry doesn’t operate or isn’t looking to operate in the future.”

Australia Environment Minister, Tony Burke, said “We have an incredible opportunity to turn the tide on protection of the oceans and Australia can lead the world in marine protection”.

Two weeks ago a U.N. report said the Great Barrier Reef was under imminent threat from industrial development and may be considered for listing as a world heritage site “in danger” in February next year.

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