New Caledonia Establishes World’s Largest Marine Park

Editor's note: Last week, the government of New Caledonia legally established the world’s largest marine managed area, which will cover 95 percent of the French territory’s waters. CI-New Caledonia Program Director Jean-Christophe Lefeuvre answers some questions about this important milestone.

Question: Why should this area be protected?

Answer: The waters within Le Parc Naturel de la Mer de Corail (Natural Park of the Coral Sea) were chosen for protection because of several outstanding features, including deep sediment basins, seamounts and coral reefs. The Chesterfield and Bellona barrier reefs — which form one of Earth’s largest reef structures — cover an area of 1,324 square kilometers (511 square miles). The park also includes the deepest site in France: 7,919 meters (25,980 feet) below sea level.

These unique formations and geological diversity create habitat for an extraordinary number of species. So far, scientists have recorded 48 species of shark, 25 marine mammal species, 19 species of nesting birds and five kinds of sea turtle.

High levels of biodiversity are indicators of healthy ecosystems, which provide direct benefits for New Caledonia’s people, such as fish catch and income from tourists visiting the island’s scenic beaches.

Q: Why is this new park so significant?

A: At 1.3 million square kilometers (more than 500,000 square miles), the park is the world’s largest marine managed area, covering an area of ocean more than three times the size of Germany.

With the park’s creation, 16 percent of France’s total marine area will be protected. This sets a great example for other nations, who are collectively trying to protect 17 percent of terrestrial and freshwater, and 10 percentof marine areas by 2020 in order to meet the Aichi Biodiversity Targets.

Q: What are the major threats to these waters?

A: There are no existing major threats — mostly illegal fishing. 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.

Q: What was CI’s involvement in the creation of the park?

A: CI helped the New Caledonian government announce its intention to create this marine park at the Pacific Islands Forum in August 2012. It was announced as the government’s first official commitment to the Pacific Oceanscape, a framework adopted by 16 island nations and six territories to better manage a transboundary region totaling nearly 40 million square kilometers (15.4 million square miles — about four times the size of the United States).

We have also supported the government by organizing meetings of decision-makers and funding scientific research, among other activities.

Next, the government, CI and partners have three years to build a management plan for the new park that will divide it into different zones based on the kinds and levels of activities that are allowed there.

Since this is a multiple-use protected area, certain areas will be open to economic activities such as fishing. We will use existing data to determine the preferred degree of use of those areas. Once the zones are demarcated, they will be regionally enforced by surveillance and other monitoring tools.

We are in the process of setting up the park’s management committee, which will include representatives of the Kanak people, the indigenous group that makes up about half of the island’s population.

Q: How do you expect this development will impact the New Caledonian economy?

A: Currently, one of the island’s main economic activities is nickel mining; New Caledonia contains about one-fourth of the planet’s known nickel resources. But because minerals like nickel are finite, we will eventually have to find a more long-term source of income.

Thanks to improved management of the marine resources New Caledonians depend on, I hope we will be able to grow the island’s “blue economy” through sustainable fishing, tourism and other pursuits that can be a source of livelihood for generations to come.

Molly Bergen is the senior managing editor of Conservation News. Jean-Christophe is the program director of CI-New Caledonia.