New Caledonia, a small island chain in the South Pacific, just set aside the largest protected area on the planet. The sprawling marine park spans 1.3 million square kilometers — or more than 320 million acres — easily becoming the most expansive wilderness
preserve anywhere, on land or at sea.
Named Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail, or "the Natural Park of the Coral Sea," the newly established sanctuary is home to a menagerie of wildlife. It contains more than 1.1 million acres of coral reefs, 25 species of marine mammals, 48 shark species, 19 species of nesting birds and five species of sea turtles. The park's ecosystems also generate up to 3,000 tons of fish every year, providing an important food source for New Caledonia's quarter of a million human inhabitants.
"This is a monumental decision for New Caledonia and the entire Pacific," says David Emmett, senior vice-president for Conservation International's Asia-Pacific program, in a press release
about the park. "Such a measure exemplifies what other countries in the Pacific can do to fully invest in the long-term health and productivity of their ocean resources."
Located about 2,000 miles east of Australia, the Natural Park of the Coral Sea covers all of New Caledonia's exclusive economic zone
, marine waters that extend up to 200 nautical miles from the islands' coasts. In addition to protecting fish, coral reefs and other wildlife that are vital to the local economy, the park is also expected to be a windfall for New Caledonian eco-tourism
Speaking of which, New Caledonia overall is already an ecological mecca. Its clever, tool-making crows
may be its most famous fauna, but it also boasts Earth's richest biodiversity per square kilometer, according to Lonely Planet
, and is considered the world's only stand-alone biodiversity hotspot
. It's home to the second-longest double-barrier coral reef, after Australia's Great Barrier Reef, as well as the largest coastal lagoon on Earth, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
New Caledonia, as seen from space by a U.S. Geological Survey satellite. (Photo: NASA/USGS)
New Caledonia is still a French territory
, but since 1999 France has been gradually transferring more responsibility to local leaders. It was those leaders, including President Harold Martin, who established the new park by legislative decree. They first announced the concept in 2012 at the Pacific Islands Forum, and have spent years developing it with help from scientists and other experts.
Not only does the park set an international example with its sheer size, but it also demonstrates the perks of proactive preservation. Rather than waiting until an ecosystem is under siege to protect it, New Caledonia is saving some of its most valuable ecological assets while they're still pristine. The area isn't devoid of problems, explains Conservation International's Jean-Christophe Lefeuvre in a Q&A
on the group's website, but it is being protected before its problems get out of hand.
"There are no existing major threats — mostly illegal fishing," says Lefeuvre, who directs Conservation International's New Caledonia program. "In the near future, however, an increase in ship traffic coming in and out of Queensland, Australia, will heighten the risk of collision. In addition, the recent deep-sea oil and mining potential may affect the integrity of nature and ecosystem services in the Coral Sea."
Now that the park has been legally established, the next step will be to figure out logistical details like spatial planning and management strategies, Lefeuvre adds. As a multiple-use protected area, certain areas will be open to economic activities like fishing, with protection levels based on information from existing environmental data. The New Caledonian government, its advisers and partners will have three years to develop a management plan for the park and divide it into different zones.
"New Caledonians have always understood how much we depend upon nature — especially our oceans," Lefeuvre says. "The careful and thoughtful management of natural resources is essential to long-term human well-being. This legislation sends a powerful message that investing in the value nature can provide is the basis for a healthy and sustainable society."
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