New Caledonia protects huge swathe of coral reefs

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NOUMEA, Aug 14, 2018 (BSS/AFP) – New Caledonia agreed Tuesday to tougher
protections around a huge swathe of some of the world’s last near-pristine
coral reefs, in a move conservationists hailed as a major breakthrough.

The Pacific nation, a French overseas territory, is home to a rich array of
wildlife including 2.5 million seabirds and over 9,300 marine species, such
as dugongs — marine mammals related to manatees — and nesting green sea
turtles, many of which thrive in and around remote zones off the island
nation’s coast.

The archipelago boasts some of the world’s healthiest reefs, including
Astrolabe, Petrie, Chesterfield and Bellona, which are considered exceptional
examples of coral ecosystems.

After years of work, the New Caledonia government Tuesday voted to set up
marine protected areas (MPAs) surrounding the reefs, and to strengthen an
existing one around Entrecasteaux, which is already a UNESCO World Heritage
site.

The move will see 28,000 square kilometres (10,810 square miles) of waters
safeguarded from commercial and industrial fishing and other exploitation,
helping conserve habitats and allow marine life to feed and reproduce
undisturbed.

Tourist activity around the reefs is also set to be more rigorously
controlled.

According to the South Pacific Tourism Organisation, New Caledonia had
27,000 visits in the first three months of the year, making up around six
percent of trips to the South Pacific region.

“This is the kind of leadership we need to see in coral reef conservation
and we applaud it,” said John Tanzer, the head of oceans for WWF
International.

“With good management, these marine protected areas will help maintain
fish populations and ecosystem health that will build the reef’s resilience
to the impacts of climate change in future.”

Christophe Chevillon, head of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy in New
Caledonia, which helped draft the plans, said it would elevate the territory
as a global leader in ocean protection, but more could still be done.

“Although we believe this to be a major breakthrough, we are convinced
that New Caledonia can still go further and lead the way for other Pacific
countries,” he told AFP.

“In fact, the 28,000 square kilometres protected only represents two
percent of the Coral Sea Natural Park.”

The MPAs fall within New Caledonia’s enormous 1.3 million-square kilometre
Coral Sea Natural Park, which was established in 2014 and covers the
country’s entire exclusive economic zone.

Protections here, such as limiting shipping and banning shark, turtle and
whale fishing, are not as comprehensive as under an MPA.

Coral reefs, which only cover 0.1 percent of the ocean’s surface but
support a quarter of known marine species, are on the decline globally,
threatened by climate change, pollution and overfishing.

WWF estimates the world has already lost about half of its shallow water
coral reefs.

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