Largest No-Fishing Zone Declared in Great Barrier Reef

Jennifer Hile
National Geographic Channel
June 15, 2004
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest living organism on the planet, a
colossal colony of limestone-secreting coral polyps stretching 1,430
miles (2,300 kilometers) off Australia's east coast. The national park
surrounding the reef shelters 128,960 square miles (334,000 square
kilometers) of ocean—an area roughly the size of Japan.

The reef is home to thousands of species of fish; a breeding ground for whales, seabirds, and turtles; and a favorite romping ground for dolphins.

As of July 1, 2004, monumental new legislation will ban all types of extraction in one-third of the park, making it the largest fully protected stretch of ocean in the world.

Traditionally, most of the marine park was open to commercial fishermen, including trawlers—boats dragging nets across the bottom of the ocean, destroying whatever is in their path.

"Many people thought the Great Barrier Reef was already fully protected," explained biologist Sylvia Earle, an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C., and former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "After all, terrestrial parks are not places where one expects to be allowed to cut trees, pick flowers, or kill the wildlife, and certainly not where large-scale commercial taking of the natural resources is considered normal."

Yet the concept of roping off parts of the ocean to conserve resources is relatively new. Worldwide, more than 12 percent of the land is protected—compared to less than 1 percent of the ocean.

"When the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park was established in the 1970s, there was a widespread belief that the ocean was essentially infinite in its capacity to yield fish and other wildlife, and that it could assimilate infinite quantities of waste from the land," Earle said.

By the end of the 20th century, collapsing fisheries, dying coral reefs, and polluted coastal waters proved otherwise.

The Reality of Reefs

Coral polyps are small animals, each less than half an inch (one centimeter) across that secrete calcium carbonate or limestone. Over millions of years the original corals and their descendents build gigantic reef structures. Those in turn shelter thousands of other species.

"Coral reefs are arguably the most complex ecosystem on the planet," said biologist Brian Huse, the executive director of Coral Reef Alliance in San Francisco. "They occupy less than 1 percent of the ocean, yet they are home to fully 25 percent of all marine species. And we don't even know what all is there yet: we're still identifying new species."

Coral reefs are found in more than a hundred countries: Globally, they are home to over 4,000 species of fish, 700 species of coral, and thousands of other animals and plants. Reefs are considered a treasure chest for medical researchers; act as a living breakwater, sheltering coastlines from the open ocean; and provide income and food for millions of people.

The threats to coral reefs are as numerous as the benefits they provide: overfishing, coastal development, untreated sewage, agricultural runoff, and global warming foremost among them. Eleven percent of the world's reefs are already destroyed, 20 percent are considered seriously damaged. Scientists estimate that another 32 percent may be lost over the next 30 years if human threats are not reduced.

Which is what the new legislation in Australia aims to achieve in a big way.

Cordoning off the Reef

"Our goal, when we began this process in 1998, was to improve protection of the entire range of plants and animals in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park," explained the manager of the rezoning effort, biologist Leanne Fernandes of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority in Queensland. "Our mechanism was to create no-take zones within every type of habitat within the marine park—coral reefs, sea grass beds, sponge gardens, the continental shelf—we wanted them all represented."

"We also recognized that we're not working in a biological vacuum. There are people working and playing in this national icon, so we implemented the largest community environmental-consultation program Australia has ever seen."

The most vocal opponents were fishers, who feared the short-term consequences of reduction in their access to fishing. "However, even they acknowledged the need to protect a minimum amount of each kind of habitat," Fernandes said.

Fishers stand to benefit from the protection over the long run.

"No-take zones serve as sources of new larvae that can eventually seed other places," said biologist Gisele Muller-Parker of Western Washington University in Bellingham. Muller-Parker is a scientific advisor on the recent IMAX film Coral Reef Adventure.

Fishers target the biggest fish—which are also among the most reproductive—leaving behind a reef populated primarily by smaller, often juvenile fish.

"Large, mature females release more eggs and larvae into the water column at one time than juveniles do. Depending on the species, it can be an increase by a factor of 4 to 15," Fernandes said. By providing a place where fish can live and reproduce throughout a full life span, no-take zones create robust ecosystems. Some of the inhabitants inevitably drift away or migrate, thereby restocking surrounding areas where fishing is permitted.

Fishers will still have access to 66 percent of the marine park. Different zones allow different types of fishing, some more destructive than others: Thirty-three percent of the marine park will still be open to commercial trawlers.

Fun in the Sun

But fishers are not the main users of the park. About 800,000 people fish recreationally each year in the marine park. Another 2,000 fish commercially. Together they generate around 430 million Australian dollars a year for the national economy.

The biggest users of the park—in both numbers and economic importance—are the tourists. There are about two million visitors a year, directly and indirectly generating around a billion dollars annually for the Australian community, according to Fernandes.

"Australia is pioneering an economy based on a healthy, thriving reef rather than one being slowly mined away," Huse said. "They are looking at how they can live in concert with their reefs, such that the income they generate is not damaging those reefs, ensuring that future generations will still have a Great Barrier Reef to enjoy."

For more news on the coral reefs scroll down

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.