CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia has created the world's largest network of marine reserves and will restrict fishing as well as oil and gas exploration in a major step to safeguard the environment and access to food.
With the expansion announced Thursday, Australia will protect 3.1 million square kilometers (1.2 million square miles) of ocean. The reserves will encompass a third of the island continent's territorial waters, which sustain more than 4,000 species of fish.
Australia is surrounded by the world's third-largest ocean territory, which provides important habitat to threatened species of whales, sharks and turtles as well as spectacular corals.
Previously only 800,000 square kilometers (310,000 square miles) of Australian waters were protected. According to the Protect Planet Ocean website, only 2.85 million square kilometers (1.1 million square miles) of oceans worldwide were within marine protection areas before.
Environmental group WWF welcomed the 2.3 million-square-kilometer expansion as a "major advance in marine conservation" that hopefully will inspire other countries at the United Nations' Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, which is under way in Rio de Janeiro.
Environment Minister Tony Burke said the government expects to pay an estimated 100 million Australian dollars ($100 million) to compensate the fishing industry for new restrictions that will take effect late this year, with only a minor impact on most types of fishing.
While the public will be invited to lodge complaints before the sanctuaries are enshrined in law, the center-left government faces no hurdles in imposing the new restrictions under existing environmental laws.
But the conservative opposition has vowed to review the boundaries if it wins government at elections next year — an outcome that opinion polls agree is likely.
"I am instinctively against anything that damages the rights of recreational fishing ... and anything that will further damage the commercial fishing industry and tourism industry," opposition leader Tony Abbott said.