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Penguin feeding grounds under-protected in expanded Australian marine park near Antarctica, conservation groups warn

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An alliance of 27 environment groups* today welcomed the Albanese Government’s plan to expand Australia’s Heard and McDonald Islands marine park near Antarctica, but said strong protection was missing for key feeding grounds for penguins, seals and albatross.

“We welcome the government’s proposal, announced today by Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek, to quadruple the size of Australia’s Heard and McDonald Islands marine park and increase the highly protected sanctuary zones within the park,” said Fiona Maxwell, national oceans manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

“But the devil is in the detail, and the plan does not adequately protect key conservation features, such as undersea canyons, seamounts and the Williams Ridge, which have important seafloor habitats and support feeding grounds for wildlife such as Antarctic fur seals, elephant seals, penguins, albatross and fish.

“The government’s own science report acknowledged there was inadequate protection for seafloor habitat and foraging areas for albatross and macaroni penguins, and for areas supporting an abundance and variety of fish. It also highlighted the global significance of these waters and the threats posed by climate change, pollution, fishing and invasive species. A recent independent study recommended protection for six key conservation features – five of which are not adequately protected as part of this plan.

“The marine park proposal must be improved to increase sanctuary protection for these key areas and to help build ecosystem resilience to these threats. This can be done in a way that minimises impacts upon the existing commercial toothfish and icefish fisheries. Under the government’s plan, these fisheries have access to all the areas they’ve historically fished, and their quotas won’t be affected.

“While the plan safeguards some important shelf habitat and ensures the bulk of Australian waters around the islands will be free from mining and the introduction of new, damaging pelagic fisheries, it still represents a missed opportunity to deliver truly world-leading protection for one of the most distinctive environments on the planet.”

Australian Marine Conservation Society Chief Executive Darren Kindleysides said: “These remote islands and their waters, 4,000 km southwest of Perth, support large breeding populations of seabirds and marine mammals, including threatened seals and albatross, four species of penguin and two species of birds found nowhere else.

“They also feature Australia’s only active volcanoes, including Heard Island’s ice-covered Big Ben, which rises nearly three kilometres above the ocean, making it taller than Mt Kosciuszko – the highest mountain on Australia’s mainland.

“Climate change is affecting life across the Southern Ocean, with everything from krill and fish to penguins, seals, whales and albatross struggling to adapt. Marine sanctuaries play a crucial role in building resilience in our marine ecosystems.

“The government should listen to the science and community sentiment and increase the marine sanctuaries around key conservation features to help ensure the future of Antarctic marine life.

“Minister Plibersek and the Albanese government demonstrated that Australia can be a global leader last year when they expanded the marine park around Macquarie Island – Australia’s other Sub-Antarctic territory – providing science-based protection for the region.

“We urge the government to show that leadership again and increase protection around Heard and McDonald.”

Ms Maxwell said: “With geopolitical challenges delaying the creation of new marine parks in international waters around Antarctica, it’s more important than ever that we do whatever we can in Australia’s own Sub-Antarctic backyard.”

* The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Australian Marine Conservation Society lead Save Our Marine Life, an alliance of 27 environmental organisations.



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