NOUMEA • New Caledonia agreed yesterday to tougher protections for 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, which is a French overseas territory, is home to a rich array of wildlife, including 2.5 million seabirds and more than 9,300 marine species. They include marine mammals like dugongs and nesting green sea turtles, many of which thrive in and around the remote zones off the 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 yesterday voted to set up marine protected areas surrounding the reefs, and to strengthen an existing one around Entrecasteaux, a Unesco World Heritage site.
The move will see 28,000 sq km of waters safeguarded from practices such as commercial and industrial fishing in a bid to help conserve habitats and allow marine life to feed and reproduce undisturbed.
Tourist activity around the reefs is also set to be more rigorously controlled. The reefs will now be harder to access for the nearly 600,000 tourists who visit New Caledonia each year and help generate one of its main income streams. Small, eco-tours can still apply for permits to access the restricted areas.
"This is the kind of leadership we need to see in coral reef conservation, and we applaud it," said Mr 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," he added.
Mr 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. However, he added that more could still be done.
He said: "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.
"In fact, the 28,000 sq km protected represents only 2 per cent of the Coral Sea Natural Park."
Like many Pacific islands, New Caledonia, with a population of just 260,000 people, controls vast swathes of resource-rich ocean.
The marine protected areas fall within New Caledonia's 1.3 million sq km 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 they are in a marine protected area.
Coral reefs, which cover only 0.1 per cent 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 that the world has already lost about half of its shallow-water coral reefs.
Australia is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which is facing various threats, including poor water quality due to agricultural run-off, climate change, illegal fishing and coastal development.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS