Australia Creates World's Largest Marine Reserve

CANBERRA, Australia, October 9, 2002 (ENS) - One of the wildest places on earth - a smoking volcano covered with snow and glacial ice, rising above the world's stormiest waters - was set aside by the government of Australia today as the world's largest fully protected marine reserve.

The new 6.5 million hectare (25,096 square mile) Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve is 4,500 kilometers (2,796 miles) southwest of the Australian mainland and 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) north of Antarctica.

About the size of Ireland, the marine reserve is one of the most pristine environments left on Earth to be protected from commercial activities.


Big Ben on Heard Island, Australia's only active volcano. (Photo by R. Twilley courtesy Australian Antarctic Division)
It falls within Australia's 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone surrounding Heard and McDonald Islands and surpasses another Australian marine reserve, the 5.8 million hectare Macquarie Island reserve, as the world's largest.

Australian Environment Minister Dr. David Kemp said the new reserve would protect the habitat and food sources of some of the world's most spectacular marine creatures, including the southern elephant seal, the Sub-Antarctic fur seal, and several penguin species.

"The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve is being declared to protect the conservation values of the region and provide an effective conservation framework to manage the region in an integrated and ecologically sustainable manner," the minister said today.

It is the only sub-Antarctic island group to contain no known species introduced directly by humans, which makes it invaluable for having, within one site, an intact set of interrelated ecosystems; terrestrial, freshwater, coastal and marine, in which the ongoing evolution of plants and animals occur in a natural state, the Australian Environment Ministry says.


King penguins on Heard Island (Photo courtesy Australian Antarctic Division (AAD))
The vast colonies of penguins and seals on these island beaches are one of the great wildlife sights of the world, including the world's largest macaroni penguin colonies, each containing an estimated two million birds. When the wind dies and the skies clear, these congregations create an incomparable cacophony of natural sound.

The waters of the reserve are important to two species of albatross - the light-mantled sooty albatross and the black-browed albatross. Bottom dwelling soft corals, glass sponges, and giant barnacles will also be protected.

The island group lies near the meeting point of Antarctic and temperate ocean waters.

Heard Island has Australia's only active volcano, Big Ben, which is also Australia's tallest mountain. McDonald Island's steep shoreline is so well protected that only two successful landings have been made since it was discovered over a century ago.


Elephant seals with Mt. Dixon in the background (Photo by E. McIvor courtesy AAD)
The Heard and McDonald Islands were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997 for their outstanding natural natural beauty and aesthetic importance.

Dr. Kemp says the park will provide a scientific area for study of the ecosystem within the Heard Island and McDonald Islands region.

WWF-Australia will nominate the new marine reserve as a Gift to the Earth - WWF's highest international conservation honour which is awarded to initiatives that advance the conservation of biodiversity.

Margaret Moore, WWF-Australia senior marine policy officer, has been working on the development and negotiations for the reserve for over two years. "This important new reserve will play a crucial role in protecting the habitat of the nationally threatened southern elephant seal as well as rare seabird species such as the wandering albatross and the southern giant petrel," she said.

"This is one of the most significant conservation decisions taken by Australia. It acknowledges Australia's responsibility to manage remote areas of our oceans," said Moore today.

"The world acknowledges that we have exercised our sovereignty in the region with great responsibility," said the minister, "and the declaration of this major new marine reserve, the largest fully protected marine area on the planet, and second only to another Australian reserve in the same region, maintains that great tradition."