Australia plans to triple the size of an ecologically important marine park and close off an area larger than Germany to fishing and mining, the government announced Monday, protecting millions of vulnerable seabirds and animals.
The remote Macquarie Island Marine Park, located off Australia’s southeastern coast between Tasmania and Antarctica in the Southern Ocean, is set to expand to 475,465 square kilometers (about 184,000 square miles).
Around 93% of the park will be a fully protected marine sanctuary “completely closed to fishing, mining and other extractive activities,” according to Australia’s Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek.
The wind-swept World Heritage-listed Macquarie Island and its surrounding waters is a site of outstanding geological and natural significance. It’s a breeding ground for millions of vulnerable seabirds and endangered wildlife, including nesting albatross, elephant and fur seals, whales and several penguin species including the royal penguin, which is found nowhere else on Earth.
“I want to protect our oceans for our kids and grandkids. This announcement is part of our mission to conserve Australia’s special places, particularly those that are home to threatened species,” said Plibersek in a statement.
The plan to expand the marine park was released in February and Monday’s announcement comes after two months of public consultations with more than 14,700 submissions that were 99% in support, according to the government.
One concession was to allow existing fishery operations of the Patagonian toothfish to continue around the island.
The marine park’s expansion was welcomed by environmental groups, saying it is a massive win for the region’s globally significant marine life.
The Macquarie Island Conservation Foundation told CNN it provided expert input into the public consultation process and the result was “exceptionally important for the species of Macquarie Island.”
“These animals rely on the waters surrounding Macquarie Island for all of their food, and having this area almost completely protected will help ensure the protection of these species for future generations.”
Fiona Maxwell, national oceans manager for the Pew Charitable Trusts, in a statement the government of Anthony Albanese “has got the balance right.”
By “giving Macquarie Island’s marine life the protection it deserves, while accommodating the small footprint of the existing, relatively well-managed and sustainable commercial Patagonian toothfish fishery.”
Macquarie Island was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997 and the marine park established in 1999.
Darren Kindleysides, chief executive of the Australian Marine Conservation Society, said sanctuaries are vital for marine wildlife, healthy ocean ecosystems and sustainable commercial fisheries.
“Across the Southern Ocean, temperatures are rising and the rate of ice loss has tripled. Industrial fisheries are damaging areas of high biodiversity and food chains, and the ocean’s rich wildlife is struggling to adapt to these rapid changes,” he said.
“Strong sanctuary protection will help this unique Sub-Antarctic marine environment build resilience in the face of these growing threats and will also help to future proof this globally significant wildlife hotspot from threats such as seabed mining.”