"We don't want people to only know the magnificence of their oceans through aquariums or by watching 'Finding Nemo'," Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke was reported saying as he announced the creation of the world’s largest network of marine reserves last Friday.
It also means that Nemo and his friends can feel a bit safer in future give that this network will help protect marine life in more than 2.3 million square kilometres of ocean.
This is an area the size of Western Europe, covering some of the world's most pristine marine ecosystems that lie within Australian waters, including the tropical Coral Sea. Many endangered marine species from green turtle, to blue whale, dugong, southern right whale, Australian sea lion and whale shark are found in these waters.
At first glance, the new marine park network looks like a conservation paradise, especially in the Coral Sea which will now be fully protected from mineral exploration and most commercial fishing operations. Unfortunately, there are still serious shortcomings.
Some equally precious areas around the vast coastline have been left wide open to the country’s runaway mineral expansion, with oil and gas exploration licenses approved in whale breeding grounds and directly adjacent to world class coral reefs. Meanwhile, massive coal mines planned for the Great Barrier Reef coastline threaten the unique ecosystem with rivers of industrial runoff and a potentially mammoth increase in shipping through the maze of fragile reefs.
But while there are some gaps, these marine reserves are a welcome development. Australia has taken a great step forward for marine protection and created something to build on.
In spite of the shortcomings of the new marine park, the Australian government should be applauded for showing real leadership in ocean conservation, and emerging as a world champion on marine reserves both within and beyond national waters.
At the Rio+20 Summit in June 2012, for instance, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard called for greater action to conserve the high seas and their resources and urged all states to develop a strengthened oceans governance regime under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, including for the establishment of marine reserves.
Greenpeace is campaigning for a network of large-scale marine reserves – areas that are closed to all extractive uses, such as fishing and mining – covering 40 percent of the world's oceans. In spite of the shortcomings, Australia’s decision brings us a step closer to this target.
This decision also shows a growing acceptance of the many benefits of large scale marine reserves not only for marine life, but also for fish stock recovery, food security and protection of the livelihood of the billions of people who depend on the ocean.
We are getting there!
Veronica Frank is an oceans campaigner at Greenpeace International