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Great News for Great Barrier Reef: Historic Zoning Laws Will Now Protect 42,000 Square Miles

Washington, D.C. - All commercial and recreational fishing boats were banned today from huge sections of Australia's Great Barrier Reef marine park as a new zoning plan went into effect. The protection plan now covers one-third of the marine park, officially making it the world's largest marine protected area.

"This win-win for fishermen and the environment is due to four years of hard work by the Australian government, coastal communities, industry leaders and WWF's Australia office," said Scott Burns, director of WWF's Marine Conservation program. "The Great Barrier Reef's network of protected areas is a global benchmark that sets a precedent for future marine conservation."

Under the new plan, protection of the reef system will rise from 4.6 percent to 33 percent of the existing marine park and World Heritage area, covering more than 42,000 square miles to the current locale -- approximately the size of Pennsylvania.

The new network of highly protected areas will reduce pressure on the Great Barrier Reef and enhance its capacity to overcome large-scale threats such as overfishing, pollution and coral bleaching, which kills coral as water temperatures rise. WWF researchers said that, without successes like this, 60 percent of global coral reefs will likely be lost by 2030.

In a WWF study, published in 2003 and condensed in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Dr. Fiona Gell and Professor Callum Roberts of the University of York (UK) examined the findings of 300 studies of more than 60 different marine protected areas around the world. They found that marine protected areas offer twice the profits for fishermen while safeguarding species and their habitats and supplying fisheries beyond their boundaries.

"We believe that marine reserves are a major boost for fishermen and the environment," said Roberts. "They are the most powerful tool available to restore fishery productivity. New evidence makes it clear that we can design effective reserves for almost anywhere that is fished."

Conservationists say the increased and stricter protection of the Great Barrier Reef has already set precedent for other countries to take similar measures in key marine regions such as the Sulu-Sulawesi Sea in South-East Asia and the Meso-American reef in Central America. In the United States, the Commission on Ocean Policy's report (May, 2004), has asked the U.S. National Ocean Council to develop national goals and guidelines for the design and implementation of marine protected areas.

"Look at Florida's Dry Tortugas, where 191 square miles were set aside and protected by state law - thanks to a diverse group of Florida fishermen, scientists, politicians and conservationists working together to help replenish depleted fisheries throughout the Keys and beyond," Burns said. "We need more examples like this to show that, like Australia, we're serious about restoring our coastal communities and surrounding seas."

Notes to Editors:

  • More than half of all Americans now live in coastal communities and that percentage is expected to rise to 75 percent over the next 20 years. Coastal development has accelerated wetlands loss and increased pollution: Every year, more oil from our streets and driveways ends up in coastal waterways than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.
  • Globally, some 2 billion people now depend on fish for their primary source of protein. Yet the ability of our oceans to keep pace with a growing demand is being undermined in ways that now threaten the very fabric of the marine ecosystem.
  • The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is comprised of over 2,900 reefs and some 940 islands and cays, and stretches 1,400 miles along the Queensland coastline. A Yale University study found that the GBR is the most economically valuable coral reef in the world - worth more than $57 billion to the international economy.
  • GBR is unusually diverse: home to 1,500 species of fish, 359 types of hard coral, 175 species of birds and more than 30 species of mammals, including dugongs and six of the world's seven threatened species of sea turtles.
  • The three main threats to GBR are coral bleaching caused by global warming, destructive fishing and land-based sources of pollution. The amount of sediment flowing from the land into the GBR marine park, from its catchment area, has quadrupled over the past 150 years.
  • The GBR has already experienced two mass coral bleaching events: in 1998, during the largest worldwide mass coral bleaching event in recorded history and, more recently, in 2002. Less than 5 percent of the GBR's coralcover will remain by the middle of the century unless heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions are reduced, according to a WWF report, The Implications of Climate Change for Australia's Great Barrier Reef, published earlier this year.