SYDNEY - Australia Friday declared the creation of the world's largest network of marine reserves, protecting more than 2.3 million square kilometers (0.89 million square miles) of ocean environment.
The announcement, after years of planning and consultation, will expand the protection of creatures such as the blue whale, green turtle, critically endangered populations of grey nurse sharks, and dugongs.
The scale of the plan, which will cover six marine regions, was first made public in June and Environment Minister Tony Burke said of 80,000 submissions received, the vast majority supported the proposal.
"Australia is a world leader when it comes to protecting our oceans, and so we should be, we've got responsibility for more of the ocean than almost any other country on Earth," he said.
"Australia is home to some incredible marine environments including the Perth Canyon in the south-west and the stunning reefs of the Coral Sea and this announcement cements Australia's position as a world leader on environmental protection.
"The declaration of these new marine reserves delivers on an election commitment and represents a major achievement for the long term conservation and sustainable use of Australia's oceans."
The declaration came despite opposition from fishermen who said coastal communities would be ruined, thousands of jobs lost and the Aus$2 billion (US$2 billion) aquaculture industry seriously impacted.
The Australian Marine Alliance, which conducted a cost analysis, claimed 60 regional communities would be affected, 36,000 jobs lost and 70-80 trawler operators displaced, while the cost of seafood imports would soar.
Burke said he understood his decision would have an impact, but claimed it would only affect one percent of the commercial fishing industry nationally.
To compensate, he said businesses hurt by the changes would be able to access Aus$100 million in assistance.
"Even though the new marine reserves have been designed in a way to minimise impacts on industry and recreational users, the government recognises that there will be impacts on some fishers and we will support those impacted," he said.
While some limits will be placed on where energy companies can work, tracts of coast off Western Australia, where Shell and Woodside Petroleum recently won permits, will remain open to oil and gas exploration.
The Australian Conservation Foundation welcomed the reserves initiative as historic, saying it would give fish space to breed and repopulate.
"The proclamation... will go down in Australian history as an economically and environmentally sustainable decision, with enormous social and conservation benefits," said the foundation's Paul Sinclair.
But he added that more could still be done.
"Although the national marine reserve network is an achievement for Australians to celebrate, there is more work to be done to protect our coastal way of life," he said.
"While the reserve network bans oil and gas exploration in the Coral Sea and off Margaret River in Western Australia, protecting nearby beaches from oil spills, the north-west region, including the Kimberley coast, is still vulnerable."
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