The Australian Government’s declaration of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve has been recognised by a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) 'Gift to the Earth Award’ which acknowledges leadership in conservation of the marine environment.

Accepting the award on behalf of the Government today, Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, said it was extremely pleasing to be recognised internationally for setting an important global precedent for marine conservation.

“The declaration of the Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve and an adjoining conservation zone in October last year demonstrates the Federal Government’s strong commitment to the sound management of Australia’s oceans,” Dr Kemp said.

“The Gift to the Earth Award is a tribute to the great efforts of all those involved from conservation and fishing industry groups and who worked together with the Government to protect the environment and to promote sustainable fishing.”

The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve — located in a remote area of the Southern Ocean about 4500 kilometres south-west of Fremantle in Western Australia — was declared under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 to protect the environmental values of the region and provide an effective conservation framework to manage the region in an integrated and ecologically sustainable manner.

The region was identified in Australia’s Oceans Policy as one of five priority areas for declaration as marine reserves to complement the National Representative System of Marine Protected Areas.

The Heard Island and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve is the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve covering an area of 6.5 million hectares, including the World Heritage listed islands and territorial sea.

Dr Kemp said the Reserve would help protect a range of sub-Antarctic habitats which support species, including the Southern elephant seal and the sub-Antarctic fur seal, both listed as threatened species under the EPBC Act.

“It will also protect rare seabird species such as Light mantled sooty albatross and the Black-browed albatross and various penguin species, as well as a range of slow growing marine species such as glass sponges, giant barnacles and soft corals,” Dr Kemp said.

“The reserve will also help protect habitat for commercial fish species such as the Patagonian toothfish, helping to conserve these species and protect spawning and nursery grounds.

“The next step in the process is the Australian Antarctic Division preparing a management plan for the Reserve which is expected to be released mid-2004. I look forward to continued support from all the key stakeholders in preparing this plan and the ongoing management of the region.”

The Federal Government has invested more than $50 million in the development and implementation of Australia’s Oceans Policy since it was announced in 1998.

“Australia’s Oceans Policy is widely acknowledged as the first national policy framework of its kind in the world,” Dr Kemp said.

“The unique feature of Australia’s approach is its recognition of all users of our ocean, from commercial and recreational fishers, Indigenous Australians, the conservation sector, industries such as oil and gas, shipping and tourism and our coastal communities.”