An alliance of environmentalists, marine scientists and former navy officers urged Australia on Wednesday to establish a vast conservation area in the Coral Sea to protect marine animals, reefs and World War II history.
The Coral Sea Campaign proposes the creation of a 400,000-square-mile Coral Sea Heritage Park where fishing would be banned. If the federal government were to approve the park, it would be the world's largest protected marine area.
The sea, hosting more than 25 coral reefs and a network of underwater mountains and canyons, is historically important as the site of the pivotal 1942 Battle of the Coral Sea. The Allies scored a strategic victory by preventing Japanese forces from landing in New Guinea and likely curbing Japan's gains in the South Pacific.
"Its environmental significance and its historic importance as the site of the battle that turned the tide of World War II in our region make the Coral Sea a treasure worth protecting for future generations," said Imogen Zethoven, director of the Coral Sea Campaign, which is led by the independent nonprofit Pew Environment Group.
Speakers at the launch of the campaign said the area is one of the few remaining sanctuaries for an abundant population of sharks, tuna, swordfish and marlin, which are overfished in other seas. It is also one of the few areas where significant populations of endangered Hawksbill and Green sea turtles exist, and is home to 25 species of whales and dolphins, and 13 species of sea birds.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was the first World War II seafight involving aircraft carriers. The USS Lexington was lost, along with 216 of her crew, and two other American ships went down. The Japanese lost one small carrier.
Retired Vice Adm. David Shackleton, a Coral Sea Campaign partner and former chief of Australia's navy, called the sea an "ocean monument" to the troops who fought there. He also urged protection of the area to stem the decline of marine life and the onset of climate change.
Such a reserve "would be a clear demonstration of Australia's leadership in protection our global maritime heritage," Shackleton said.
Australia 'looking closely' at request
The campaign has submitted its proposal to Environment Minister Peter Garrett and hopes to have a decision by early next year.
A spokesman for Garrett said over 6,565 square miles of the Coral Sea are already protected in marine reserves.
"The protection and management of Australia's unique marine environment is a high priority" for the government, the spokesman said, asking not to be named according to department policy. "The government is currently looking closely at the case for further protection of the Coral Sea and will be consulting with stakeholders before the government makes any decisions in this regard."
The proposed no-fishing park lies just east of the Great Barrier Reef, on Australia's northeastern coast, and would extend to the country's maritime boundaries with Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and New Caledonia.
Less than 0.1 percent of the world's oceans are fully protected, compared with the 11 percent of land habitats that are protected, the campaign said in a news release.
Earlier this year, the Pacific nation of Kiribati declared the world's largest marine protected area — a California-sized area of 164,200 square miles just off its shores.
In 2006, U.S. President Bush designated a 140,000-square-mile no-fishing sanctuary in the waters northwest of Hawaii. The campaign for the Hawaii park was also spearheaded by the Pew Environment Group, a part of the independent, nonprofit U.S.-based Pew Charitable Trusts.