The Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea reserve will become the world's largest joint protected area

Story highlights

Proposal would cover one third of Australia's waters

BIggest undersea mountain range gets new protected status

Some areas still open to oil and gas exploration

CNN  — 

Australia plans to create the world’s largest network of marine reserves, its government announced Thursday.

The proposal would increase the number of protected areas from 27 to 60 and would cover 3.1 million square kilometers (1.9 million square miles), roughly one-third of Australia’s waters.

“We have an incredible opportunity to turn the tide on protection of the oceans and Australia can lead the world in marine protection,” said Tony Burke, the country’s environment minister.

“This new network of marine reserves will help ensure that Australia’s diverse marine environment, and the life it supports, remain healthy, productive and resilient for future generations.”

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Coral Sea Commonwealth marine reserve will become the world’s largest adjoining marine protected area, covering 1.3 million square kilometers.

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“Our aim is to protect our unique marine environment, while supporting coastal communities and marine industries around the country,” said Burke.

“Over the coming months, the government will consult the fishing industry and fisheries management agencies on the design and implementation of a fisheries adjustment assistance package.”

WWF Australia hailed the plan as an “important example to the world.” The newly created sanctuaries would give protection to Australia’s biggest undersea mountain range, the Diamantina fracture zone off the southwest coast, as well as new parts of the Coral Sea that are critical nesting sites for green turtles and rich in large predatory fish and sharks.

Paul Gambin from WWF Australia cautioned that some areas equally rich in biodiversity had not been included in the plan, possibly because of their proximity to rich reserves of fossil fuels.

“Oil and gas rigs are still moving ever closer to places like the stunning Rowley Shoals and Ningaloo Reef off Western Australia,” said Gambin in a press statement. “These are among the jewels in the crown for Australia’s marine environment and surrounding waters have not been protected under this plan.”

The marine reserves network is expected to be finalized before the end of 2012.