The Protect Our Coral Sea coalition has called the 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 protection.'
'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.
A recent poll found that almost seven in 10 Queenslanders said they supported the government making the entire Coral Sea a marine national park. More than 55,000 letters have been received by federal MPs in support of this goal.
The release of the draft plan kicks off a 90-day public comment period. Protect Our Coral Sea will be encouraging all Australians to send a submission to the government calling for stronger protection levels.
'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.
Speaking with MarineBusiness-World.com, Daisy Barham, Coral Sea campaigner, Australian Marine Conservation Society, says zoning the Coral Sea a marine park is in the best interests for the future of Australian seafood sustainability.
'This is an opportunity that will then position Australia to have a healthy breeding ground for our seafood industry, while we still have healthy oceans. This is our opportunity to protect a unique eco-system that is really quite healthy compared to many other places in the world.'
As Barham explains, the Coral Sea which is approximately 250km offshore from Gladstone, is not the epicentre of commercial fishing. 'There is not much fishing out there already, so it won’t impact on the Australian industry or greatly increase the need for exports.
'Commercial fishing is done closer to shore. There are some Australian long line vessels, working out of Mooloolaba and Cairns, that operate beyond the Barrier Reef in the area conservationists are hoping will be zoned marine park. They catch different species of tuna, but also catch sharks and other species.'
The Coral Sea, continues Barham, is 'very special on a global scale'.
'It’s one of the least studied areas, with immense deep reefs. We risk losing species before we have even had a chance to know what’s out there. There are very few areas left on the scale of the Coral Sea. This is something Australia should be proud of – the opportunity to protect something with global significance.'
As for the criticism of the US-based Pew Group by the fishing and boating industries, Barham says Pew is just one of 13 conservation groups and other international groups, like WWF who have made the Coral Sea their priority.
'If we are going to keep eating seafood, we need a good foundation of protected areas to increase fish stocks. We need to be taking a long term view.'
In one thing Barham will find agreement from the fishing industry: the need for monitoring of any area declared a marine park.
'It is up to the Australian government to make sure it does commit resources to monitor marine parks, so that there is no increase in illegal fishing. Ongoing management is vital. But the Coral Sea is not a ‘hot spot’ compared to other areas in our northern waters which are more vulnerable. Its location, long distance from shore and deep water make it a natural barrier.'
More at www.protectourcoralsea.org.au