Huge marine parks off Christmas and Cocos islands targets illegal foreign fishing

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Australia is adding an area of the Indian Ocean bigger than France to its network of marine parks in an attempt to keep out international fishing boats and promote scientific discovery in two biodiversity hotspots.

The Morrison government announced $5.4m would be spent to create two marine parks around Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands covering 740,000 sq km – a huge expanse of ocean almost as large as the state of New South Wales.

Conservationists said the promised marine parks would be a significant step for ocean protection. The government is still to decide the level of protection the region will receive, and the extent to which commercial activities will be limited.

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The area is more than twice the size of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and, once declared, would be the second largest protected area in Australia’s waters behind the 989,000 sq km Coral Sea marine park.

Christmas Island, which emerged 60m years ago from a volcanic seamount, is about 350km south of Indonesia and 1,500km west of Australia. The island is known for its migration of millions of red crabs that move from the forests to the shore and were made famous by Sir David Attenborough.

The Cocos (Keeling) Islands, about 970km west of Christmas Island, are two coral atolls surrounded by deep ocean.

Environment minister Sussan Ley said she was opening consultation with the island communities and the commercial fishing industry.

“The Christmas and Cocos Islands boast some of the most fascinating and unique ecosystems on Earth and this is about extending that protection to the surrounding waters of the Indian Ocean.

“This is an international marine treasure on Australia’s doorstep, one that is from a scientific perspective relatively undisturbed and undiscovered.”

A protected area across the two island communities would provide “greater protection from illegal international fishing operations” and support scientific research and support island economies, she said.

“We know that this is a critical area for spawning bluefin tuna and, while we are yet to unlock its many other secrets, it is important that we protect the ocean’s unique habitats and the species that rely on them.”

Marine protected areas can offer varying levels of protection, from sanctuary zones that heavily restrict access to areas that allow destructive activities such as fossil fuel exploration.

Ley said Australia had a record of establishing strong protections within marine parks and while the level of protection for the new areas would be decided after a consultation process “we will, of course, be looking to build our strong record”.

Prof Jessica Meeuwig, a marine ecologist and director of the Marine Futures Lab at the University of Western Australia, said the two regions were rich in biodiversity “because they’re stepping stones across the wider ocean”.

She said the rising global population raising demand for fish with large-scale commercial fishing in open waters was an increasing threat.

“Marine parks can act as engine rooms, giving you more fish. They also build resilience and we know that areas that are highly protected are more resilient to climate change.

“The challenge for the government and for the community will be to find the right balance.”

Meeuwig has worked in the region and carried out a survey around the Cocos (Keeling) Island in 2018. “It’s this crazy hotspot of biodiversity,” she said. Because the islands were so remote, they acted like a magnet for marine species.

The region around Christmas Island and to the east is the only known spawning ground for southern bluefin tuna – a species listed internationally as critically endangered.

Scalloped hammerhead sharks, also critically endangered, are seen in the waters off Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

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Mark Rochfort, 58, is a fishing store owner and one of two commercial fishers on Christmas Island catching mainly Wahoo and yellowfin tuna for locals from his 6-metre boat.

He says the marine environment is spectacular, with common sights including whale sharks – the world’s biggest fish – as well as marlin, tuna and billfish. There are “lots of sharks,” he said.

Large factory fishing vessels that target deeper waters in the region were a threat, he said. He used to see them near the island often in the 1980s and 1990s, but says the Australian government’s increased presence for border controls had coincided with their disappearance from local waters.

“What a marine park will do is make us feel more secure with what we’ve got,” he said.

Data on international fishing fleets from charity Global Fishing Watch shows commercial fishing is happening in the waters around Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands.

Gordon Thomson, Christmas Island shire president, said the announcement was exciting news for the island. But he said the marine park “must be designed with our people at the forefront”.

Aindil Minkom, Cocos (Keeling) Islands shire president, said the island’s people had a rich and strong culture that was intimately connected to the ocean.