Australia maps out world's largest marine reserve

Belinda Goldsmith, Reuters
October 10, 2002

Australia plans to create the world's largest fully protected marine reserve, announcing on Wednesday it had mapped out a giant park free of fishing and exploitation in its remote, sub-Antarctic waters.

The government said the new 6.5-million-hectare (16-million-acre) reserve would be created around the rugged Heard Island and McDonald Islands group, 4,500 km (2,790 miles) southwest of the mainland and 1,000 km (620 miles) north of Antarctica.

The Australian territory of Heard and McDonald islands is the only sub-Antarctic island group with an intact ecosystem that has not been tainted by foreign species introduced directly by man.

"The declaration would preserve for science and for nature a very large area of one of the most pristine environments left on Earth," Environment Minister David Kemp said in a statement, finalizing two years of work to tighten up protection of the area.

The size of the park surpasses another Australian marine reserve, the 5.8-million-hectare (14.3-million-acre) Macquarie Island reserve about 1,500 km (930 miles) off Australia's southeast tip, to become the world's largest protected marine area.

Heard and McDonald Islands were inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1997, but the government's top-level protection order gives the area further protection. Declaring the area a protected reserve excludes most human activity and prohibits commercial fishing and mineral and petroleum exploration. It also limits scientific research activities.


Kemp said the move would protect the habitat and food sources of a list of animals including the southern elephant seal, the sub-antarctic fur seal, and several penguin species.

The reserve is also home to two species of the world's most majestic seabird, the albatross — the light-mantled sooty albatross and the black-browed albatross — while the seas contain soft corals, glass sponges, and giant barnacles.

Kemp said the declaration would provide an effective framework to manage the region in an integrated, ecologically sustainable way. "It will also provide a scientific area for study of the ecosystem within the Heard Island and McDonald Islands region," he said.

The reserve falls within one of world's wildest places. Heard Island is home to Australia's only active volcano, Big Ben, and is Australia's tallest mountain, rising 2,745 meters (9,006 ft) above a thick mantle of snow and glacial ice. McDonald Island, the major island in the group, has such a steep shoreline that only two successful landings have been made by boat since it was discovered a century ago.

"The extreme isolation and the lack of introduced predators provide an excellent location for investigating the effects of geographic isolation and climate on the evolution of species," a government briefing paper said.