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Australia Plans Increased Protection for Great Barrier Reef - 2003-06-02

Australian Environment Minister David Kemp says his country plans to increase protection for the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest coral reef system. But the move is stirring controversy.

Australia's Environment Ministry has unveiled a plan to make more of the Great Barrier Reef off-limits for fishing, which damages the reef.

Previously, only about five percent of the massive stretch of coral reef was protected from commercial and recreational fishing. Environment Minister Kemp told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that this could now be expanded to cover as much as 30 percent of the Barrier Reef. "This is a huge step forward in the protection of the Barrier Reef. All Australians want to see the reef protected from damage. They want to be assured that it's going to survive in a healthy condition into the future and that's what this new plan is about," he said.

But Mr. Kemp's draft plan has sparked criticism from environmentalists.

Ben Oquist of the Australian Greens Party says that to succeed in protecting the reef, the government also needs to act against other major threats, such as climate change and runoff from land clearing.

Mr. Oquist adds that the amount of the Barrier Reef receiving government protection is likely to shrink as the bill approaches passage. "Kemp has slipped to saying around 30 percent on the weekend, and he's just issued a press release today that now says around 25 percent. So day one of the consultation - the nine-week consultation period before this becomes law - we've already seen a slippage of five percent," he said. "Now that five percent equates to over 17,000 square kilometers."

On the other side of the debate, the fishing industry is also voicing opposition. Industry officials say bigger no-fishing zones will hurt the economy, and are calling for the government to scale down the plan.

The Great Barrier Reef runs almost 2,000 kilometers just off the northeastern coast of Australia. The coral reef, a U.N. World Heritage Site, is home to tens of thousands of species of fish and other sea life. It is a popular tourism destination, and a rich fishing ground.