Call to keep Coral Sea's sharks off dinner tables

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2007, 12:00am

The largest marine reserve in the world should be created in the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia to protect the area from illegal shark fishing for Asian markets, a conservation organisation said yesterday.

WWF Australia launched a campaign to declare the Coral Sea a vast marine park, linking it with the adjoining Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and providing a refuge for tiger sharks, manta rays and other big ocean creatures.

'WWF and the tourism industry are very concerned that illegal fishers will raid the Coral Sea reefs - mainly for shark fins for the Asian market,' said Richard Leck, WWF's marine policy manager.

The tropical ocean was also vulnerable to plans for undersea oil and gas extraction, the group said.

It called on the government to grant protection to 780,000 sq km of largely unspoilt tropical ocean, tripling the size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

Stretching from the outer boundary of the reef to the edge of Australia's territorial waters, the Coral Sea marine reserve would be the largest on the planet. In places it would extend more than 200 nautical miles off the coast of Queensland.

'The Coral Sea presents us with a unique opportunity to safeguard one of the world's few remaining pristine marine regions,' Mr Leck said.

'If we act quickly we can protect one of our most precious and fragile resources before irreversible damage is done.'

Populations of big oceanic predators such as sharks have plummeted 90 per cent globally since 1950, WWF said.

The Coral Sea was recently nominated by Forbes magazine as being one of the world's top 10 diving destinations, with healthy populations of tiger sharks, hammerheads, white-tipped reef sharks and blue sharks.

Its pristine reefs and coral cays are estimated to bring in more than A$11 million (HK$72.2 million) a year in tourist revenue.

'The Coral Sea is the new jewel in global dive tourism because it's one of the few places you can still see large shark populations,' said WWF marine scientist Gilly Llewellyn.

'It's a different kind of system to the Great Barrier Reef because it's got these underwater mountains that come out of the surface from really deep water.

'It brings the deep ocean predators into the system.'

The environmental spokesman for the opposition Labor Party, former frontman for the Australian rock band Midnight Oil Peter Garrett, said the Coral Sea deserved greater protection.

'Like the Great Barrier Reef, our greatest natural treasure, it should be cherished, and serious attention needs to be given to consider better protecting its environmental values in future,' he said.