New Caledonia, a small island group in the South Pacific Ocean, just established the world’s largest nature reserve. The new marine protected area is larger than Alaska, stretching over 320 million acres.
Named the Natural Park of the Coral Sea (Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail), the new marine reserve lies about 2,000 miles east of Australia. New Caledonian waters have a variety of diverse habitats that provide homes and resources for an extraordinary number of species. Deep sediment basins, underwater mountains, and expansive coral reefs support at least 48 species of shark, 25 marine mammal species, 19 species of nesting birds, and five types of sea turtles. The new marine reserve will help protect these critical habitats and unique species.
“It’s a sign that countries similar to New Caledonia, which are largely ocean nations, are beginning to recognize the value and investment to be made by protecting their oceans,” said Greg Stone, Chief Scientist at Conservation International. Stone’s organization has been helping the French territory’s government adopt sustainable practices and shape plans for the marine protected area.
The park’s creation also demonstrates the ability of small geographical areas to make enormous conservational achievements. This is especially true of ocean nations, which have special rights over waters extending up to 200 nautical miles from their shores. New Caledonia’s Natural Park of the Coral Sea protects this entire area including one of the world’s largest reef structures and an UNESCO World Heritage site. Before the creation of the reserve, only four percent of France’s total marine area was under protection. Now, that figure has quadrupled to 16 percent.
Establishment of the park was a proactive step to protect the pristine marine area before it faces threats. “Luckily for now, there are no major threats [to New Caledonian waters], but the region does have its fair share of illegal fishing to handle,” Stone said. However, future dangers could include increased shipping traffic from Queensland, Australia and deep-sea oil and mining.
The next step will be to develop a management plan for the new park. The local government is consulting with Conservation International, scientists, and the planners of another marine park to formulate a management plan. Nevertheless, developing an effective plan may be challenging. “Protected areas on the ocean are like snowflakes — no two are identical,” Stone said. The park’s management plan will have to take a lot of factors into consideration including future threats to the environment, people’s dependence on the ocean for food, and the need to preserve critical habitats. The current plan divides the protected waters into different zones based on the kinds and levels of allowed activity such as for fishing or recreational use. This careful multi-use planning could help sustain New Caledonia’s economy while providing a long-term sanctuary for marine wildlife.
This article was originally published at The Wildlife Society, May 8, 2014.