This Small Island Territory Just Created The World’s Largest Protected Marine Park

CREDIT: Conservation International/photo by François Tron

View from Mt. Panie, the highest point on New Caledonia's main island.

New Caledonia has created a 320 million-acre marine park in the South Pacific, a protected area that’s about three times the size of Germany and, according to Conservation International, is now the largest protected area “on land or sea.”

Harold Martin, President of New Caledonia — a French collective that’s located about 750 miles east of Australia — announced the establishment of the marine park last week. The protected area, called the Natural Park of the Coral Sea, is located about 2,000 miles east of Australia and will encompass all of New Caledonia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, the region that extends up to 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coast whose marine resources are under the jurisdiction of the nation. The park is home to more than 1,730 square miles of coral reefs, 25 species of marine mammals, 48 species of shark, 19 species of nesting birds, and five turtle species.

“New Caledonians have always understood how much we depend upon nature –- especially our oceans,” Jean-Christophe Lefeuvre, Conservation International’s program director for New Caledonia, said in a statement. “The careful and thoughtful management of natural resources is essential to long-term human well-being. This legislation sends a powerful message that investing in the value nature can provide the basis for a healthy and sustainable society.”

Pygmy seahorses in New Caledonia.

Pygmy seahorses in New Caledonia.

CREDIT: Rodolphe Holler/Conservation International

So far, New Caledonia hasn’t announced how much protection will be awarded to the marine park. In a release, Conservation International says that New Caledonia will be defining the levels of protection “in the next phase of the park’s development,” and that “ultimately, the Natural Park of the Coral Sea will be a multiple use area with various zones for economic activity and conservation.”

Marine reserves — as well as reserves on land — can have a wide range of protections, with some protected areas still allowing certain kinds of fishing or energy extraction. Earlier this year, a study found that most marine protected areas don’t successfully protect marine life — 59 percent of the marine protected areas (MPAs) looked at by the study’s authors were “not ecologically distinguishable from fished sites.” The study concluded that a successful MPA had to meet at least four out of five markers in order to work — it must prohibit fishing, be well enforced, have been protected for longer than 10 years, be larger than 100 square km (38.6 square miles), and be isolated by deep water or sand, so that fish can’t pass easily between protected and unprotected areas.

New Caledonia isn’t the only government to implement marine protections this year. In February, the island nation of Palau announced that it would ban commercial fishing in its 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, creating a marine sanctuary roughly the size of France.

“We have no choice – the ocean is our way of life,” Palau’s president Tommy Remengesau Jr. said. “This is something that is far more than the economical loss of revenues for companies or other countries — you’re talking about a livelihood that’s really going to be decimated if we don’t take the responsible action.”

Instead of fishing, the country is turning to its eco-tourism industry as a main source of income. As the Food and Environment Reporting Network reports, fishing — mostly by Japan and Taiwan — contributes about $5 million annually to Palau, while the tourism industry brings in $85.3 million.

“We feel that a live tuna or shark is worth a thousand times more than a dead fish,” Remengesau said.

Last year, countries from around the world gathered to discuss the creation of what would have been one of the world’s largest marine reserves off the coast of Antarctica, but the proposal ended up being scrapped after fishing interests in Russia, China, and Ukraine voiced concerns. Globally, around 2.8 percent of the oceans are protected by some sort of Marine Protected Area (though, with the announcement of New Caledonia’s new reserve, that percentage would raise slightly), and less than half of that protected ocean area is closed completely to fishing.