Australia's north and northwest teeming with rare and threatened marine life – new reports

Two new reports released today, Wild Blue Yonder: Fifteen underwater places for protection in Australia’s north west and Twelve Tropical Sea Treasures: Underwater icons of Northern Australia reveal critical sites for rare and threatened sealife off Australia’s north and northwest coast.

The reports draw attention to the urgent need for marine sanctuaries to protect these vulnerable, iconic and unique environments.

“Environment Minister Tony Burke has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to protect tropical sealife across northern Australia. The government’s recently proposed reserves must protect every one of these iconic areas from the threats of oil and gas drilling and overfishing”, said Paul Gamblin from WWF-Australia.

“Unless large sanctuaries are established in these iconic places, Australia will not be able to claim that it is adequately protecting its tropical marine environment.”

“Spanning over one and a half million square kilometres, currently less than one per cent of these regions is protected from threats such as oil and gas drilling, seabed mining and overfishing”, said Gavan McFadzean from The Wilderness Society.

The reports uncover an underwater treasure trove rich in threatened sealife, including ancient coral reefs, enormous whale sharks, dugong feeding grounds, habitat for the rare and recently described snubfin dolphin and humpback whale havens.

“This vast and diverse region, from Shark Bay through to the Gulf of Carpentaria, is a haven to tropical sealife, threatened with extinction in other parts of the world “, said Jess Abrahams from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

“This report clearly shows that marine sanctuaries are critical for protecting vulnerable marine life and their underwater habitat.”

“The ocean off North Western Australia is our last great whale haven. But this plan sets the scene for unconstrained development of the oil and gas industry to the detriment of whales, dolphins and other marine animals. The Australian Government must do more to balance the needs of industry and conservation if it’s to maintain its global reputation as a whale protector,” said Isabel McCrea from IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare).

The reports have been produced by Save Our Tropical Sealife, an alliance of local, national and international conservation groups, as part of the campaign to seek protection for iconic and vulnerable marine habitats across northern Australia.

View the North report. View the northwest report.

The iconic and unprotected sites identified in the northwest include:

• Shark Bay – the waters off the World Heritage area, home to dugong feeding areas and the most important breeding site for loggerhead turtles in Western Australia, and ancient stromatolites believed to be the oldest life forms on earth;
• Wallaby Saddle – abundant squid provide sustenance to sperm whales;
• Ningaloo Reef and canyons – Australia’s newest World Heritage area and longest fringing coral reef, supporting enormous biodiversity including 250 species of coral and 460 fish, a tourism mecca, and globally-important whale shark habitat;
• Dampier Archipelago – the richest area of marine biodiversity in Western Australia, migratory route for many protected species, like turtles and dugong;
• Wild offshore atolls – the clear waters around places like the Rowley Shoals where huge schools of fish rush through walls of coral and nature is still untamed.
• Kimberley –epicentre for snubfin dolphins, whale calving, majestic underwater formations and tropical fish.
• Browse Islands – an ocean mammal metropolis with large pods of oceanic dolphins, pygmy killer whales, false killer whales, melon-headed whales, minke whales and pilot whales.

In the north, critical sites include:

• Fog Bay – home of flatback turtles, unique seabirds and critically endangered sawfish;
• The Arafura Canyons – where deep nutrient-laden waters rise in an underwater “restaurant” for whale sharks;
• Coburg Pinnacles – remnants of ancient reefs provide a refuge for light loving sea life and leatherback turtles;
• Central Gulf/Cape York – where Traditional Owners have aspiration for control of their sea country, and where heart urchins cycle nutrients through the food web;
• Limmen Bight – an internationally renowned haven for dugong, cloaked in abundant seagrass;
• Arnhem Shelf Islands – clear waters rich in sacred sites and sealife found nowhere else.

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