New Caledonia creates world’s largest marine park

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New Caledonia legislates to protect marine area bigger than Alaska, says major threats include shipping traffic from expanded Queensland coal ports.

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The government of New Caledonia has created the world’s largest protected area – on land or sea – with the legal establishment of the Natural Park of the Coral Sea (Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail), bringing under management a multi-use marine area totaling 1.3 million km2 – or 95 per cent of the French territory’s waters.

The new law, established under President Harold Martin in Noumea last week, will protect the park’s valuable marine ecosystems, home to more than 4500km2 of fishery-supporting coral reefs (which provide New Caledonia’s quarter of a million people with around 2,500-3,000 tonnes of fish a year), 25 species of marine mammals, 48 shark species, 19 species of nesting birds and five species of marine turtles.

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The waters within Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail were chosen for protection because of several outstanding features, including deep sediment basins, seamounts and coral reefs, which host an extraordinary number of species.

One of the biggest near future threats to the area, says Conservation International’s program director for New Caledonia Jean-Christophe Lefeuvre, comes from Australia, and the anticipated increase in shipping traffic that will arise from the development of Queensland’s new coal port.

The development of what will be the world’s largest coal export terminal at Abbot Point – just 2,000 miles west of New Caledonia in the Pacific Ocean – is one of the many emerging threats to Australia’s valuable ecosystems and heritage listed areas as state and federal government environment policies are relaxed, or axed, in favour of economic expansion.

The UN’s environmental arm has warned that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park – the world’s most extensive coral reef system – could be listed as a World Heritage Site in Danger if Australia fails to act to protect it.

So far, the call has been taken by green groups, who in February went to the Administrative Appeals Tribunal to challenge a permit giving North Queensland Bulk Ports Corp. the right to three million cubic meters of dredging waste in the Barrier Reef’s waters.

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Pygmy seahorses in New Caledonia. The region’s unique underwater formations and geological diversity create habitat for an extraordinary number of species.

For New Caledonia, a territory that is highly dependent on its natural capital, the legislation will provide direct benefits. Over the next three years, Conservation International experts in New Caledonia and the region will help the government shape the park’s spatial planning and management plan, that will use best practices for integrated management and the protection of ecosystems, habitats and species. It will also strengthen monitoring strategies, preserving cultural values and work to increase international visibility.

A fisherman paddles their boat
New Caledonia’s waters provide direct benefits for its people, such as fishing and tourist income.

The decision also increases French contributions to UN protection targets for 2020 – from 4 per cent of France’s national jurisdiction marine waters being protected, to 16 per cent today.

CI’s Lefeuvre hopes it will also send a powerful international message “that investing in the value nature can provide the basis for a healthy and sustainable society.”

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