Last year the Australian Government unveiled plans for marine protected areas girding the continent. The plans became official in November. Parliament approval is expected shortly.

Australia will spend tens of millions of dollars on the programme. It will protect 2.3 million sq. km of sea and try to balance leisure uses, commercial interests such as fishing and drilling, and conservation.

The move was hailed as a first step towards seriously addressing the loss of biodiversity in the waters off the Australian continent. Some areas come under total protection like the Great Barrier Reef and the Coral Sea but there are many areas, which are only partially protected.

A significant aspect of the government’s move is that in many areas, greater protection is mandated in deeper waters while the shallow (coastal) water is left unprotected. This could probably be because some areas have big oil reserves.

What effect will the drilling for oil and gas have on species in the areas drilled? “It varies from high levels of underwater noise from seismic activity which can disturb animals like whales, to a possible major accident like the Montara incident of the Northwest a few years ago, or the Gulf of Mexico,” Mr. Paul Gamblin, Marine Policy Manager, WWF-Australia, said in an email to this correspondent.

Protecting a proportion of all marine habitats is the best way forward. For instance, protecting coral reefs has great benefits. And leading scientists recommend this. Aside from reefs, seagrass, underwater canyons and upwellings are other areas. “This also means protecting important areas for wildlife species to shelter, feed and breed,” he notes.

There are threatened species that are found in Australian waters, many that face threats when they migrate beyond Australian waters, too.

Mr. Gamblin says: “Marine parks should help in the recovery of these species but they do not have to be designed around specific threats or the particular threatened species, but to protect a representative sample of the ecosystem. That helps restore the health of the marine habitat and withstand pressures like those from fishing and climate change.”

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