The ocean sanctuary covers 240,000 square miles.
PHOTO: Courtesy of New Zealand government
The ocean sanctuary covers 240,000 square miles.

Story highlights

The Kermadec ocean sanctuary covers 240,000 square miles to the northeast of New Zealand

The area is about twice as large as the country's land mass and 35 times larger than the country's existing marine reserves

While environmentalists lauded the move, some approached it with cynicism

(CNN) —  

New Zealand is creating one of the world’s largest fully protected ocean sanctuaries, twice the size of the nation itself, the country’s prime minister announced on Monday.

“This is an area twice the size of our land mass and 50 times the size of our largest national park. It is truly a special place and we want to keep it that way,” prime minister John Key said at a United Nations summit on Monday.

The 620,000 square kilometre (about 240,000 square miles) ocean sanctuary is in the Kermadec region, to the northeast of New Zealand.

The area is 35 times larger than the country’s existing marine reserves and includes the world’s longest chain of submerged volcanoes and the second deepest ocean trench, the New Zealand government said.

It’s also home to several endangered sea turtle species, and serves as an important breeding and feeding ground for seabirds, whales and dolphins.

Read: Ocean ‘economy’ headed for collapse

Balance with business

It’s a major step in ocean conservation that has been lauded by environmental groups. Unlike a marine reserve which allows for undersea cables, it will establish a no-take, fully protected zone that essentially limits all activities.

While Key admitted there will most likely be some impact on the fishing and mining industries, a substantial part of the New Zealand economy, he said the sanctuary had struck the the right balance with economic growth.

“The mining resources are potentially very, very large there because there are unknown quantities of silver and other resources there,” Key said but, “on the other side of the coin, we are also trying to protect what is, from a geological perspective, a very important and significant part of the world.”

He added: “There’s bound to be a mixture of emotions but for New Zealanders have a strong sense of wanting a good economy and one that creates jobs but also preserving our environment and our environmental credentiais. I think this is a nice balance between that.”

Read: Opinion: Pacific nations lead sea-change in ocean conservation

Cynicism over carbon emissions

Business interests however aren’t the only quibble. Some see this is as a maneuver to distract from the country’s poor efforts to rein in carbon emissions.

“It’s interesting timing for us,” Bunny McDiarmid, executive director at Greenpeace New Zealand said. The establishment of a sanctuary had been under discussion for six years and she points out that it is 2015 Paris Climate Conference in early December.

The New Zealand government has outlined a plan to cut carbon emissions by 11% from 1990 levels by 2030, which pales in comparion to other countries that are aiming for cuts of around 30 to 40%.

“They’re going to Paris with a really bad proposal,” McDiarmid said.

“On the one hand, they’re establishing this wonderful area and on the one hand, they’re completely undermining it with completely inadequate action on climate change,” she said.

“Oceans will not be protected by it by calling it an ocean sanctuary. If the government is serious about these areas, they need a really strong climate plan and they don’t have it.”

Rising ocean temperature due to carbon emissions is causing coral to die off and higher acidity of waters creates an inhospital environment for marine life.

“If you think that’s all that will take, then we are dreaming,” McDiarmid said. “We need to have incredibly good climate agreement out of Paris.”

Read: Oceans – environmental victim or savior?