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Australia Moves to Protect the Coral Sea

Australia has agreed to protect one million square kilometers of ocean off its northeast coast. The Coral Sea Conservation Zone will help safeguard an area described by conservationists as a "spectacular marine jewel" while the region is assessed for more permanent protection.

The Coral Sea is home to an array of wildlife. It is one of the few places in the world where populations of large fish such as tuna and sharks have not been severely depleted.

Australia has set up the Coral Sea Conservation Zone in its territorial waters east of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. The area borders on vast stretches of the Pacific Ocean that are controlled by Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.

The new measures are an interim step while other suggestions are considered, such as proposals to establish a new marine park or ban commercial fishing in the region.

Activities already carried out in the Coral Sea, such as pleasure cruises, fishing and scientific research, will be allowed to continue but can not be increased within the Conservation Zone.

Federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett thinks he is striking the right balance between conservation and commerce.

"I think that we have done absolutely the right thing in recognition of how important this region is. In doing that we're acknowledging that there are existing uses and that those existing uses can continue," he said.

The Pew Environmental Group, which is based in the United States, has been pushing Australia to increase protection of the Coral Sea.

Spokeswoman Elise Hawthorne welcomes the new measures.

"We think it's a wonderful announcement today," she said. "We're very happy that the Minister made this announcement. And we're just really supportive of anything that protects the Coral Sea. It's such an amazing, spectacular marine jewel that's part of Australia, and it's got an extremely important heritage value as well. So we welcome today's announcement."

Garrett says the government's environmental assessment of the vast Coral Sea should be completed by the middle of next year.