Ocean sanctuary size of France announced by New Zealand in landmark deal

© Ben Nelms
New Zealand will build an ocean sanctuary the size of France – one of the largest on Earth, in order to preserve marine life in a vast stretch of the South Pacific making up 15 percent of the country’s exclusive economic zone.

The zone, announced by Prime Minister John Key, will be twice the size of the country’s landmass and be 50 times the size of its largest national park in Fiordland – 620,000 square km (about 385,000 sq. mi), according to Fairfax Media. It will be located in the Kermadec region, about 1,000km north-east of New Zealand.

The area is home to the second deepest ocean trench on Earth, as well as encompassing a chain of 30 underwater volcanoes, which is the largest anywhere on Earth. It is also home to 39 bird species, over 150 species of whales and dolphins, three types of endangered sea turtles and dozens of other animals unique to the area, according to New Zealand’s environment ministry.

"The Kermadec Ocean sanctuary will be one of the world's largest and most significant fully-protected areas, preserving important habitats for seabirds, whales and dolphins, endangered marine turtles and thousands of species of fish and other marine life," Key said at the United Nations in New York.

The area “is one of the most geographically diverse areas in the world,” the PM said in the statement.

“New Zealanders value our coasts and oceans which are an important part of our culture, economy and environment and we are committed to managing them sustainably."

All fishing and marine exploitation will be banned in the area.

The landmark deal also means New Zealand will say no to some lucrative economic gains, including large deposits of silver deep underneath the region. After consultation, it was decided they are too deep and too costly to get to.

But the area is home to regular discoveries of new species, so environmental groups applaud the move, also backed by prominent businessmen and some celebrities, like Titanic and Avatar director James Cameron, who sometimes resides in New Zealand.

Once completed, the ocean sanctuary will add to the 3.5 million square miles already protected across the globe.

"We're delighted the Government has picked up the Kermadec ocean sanctuary concept,” Green Party environment spokeswoman Eugeanie Sage said, adding criticism that the government still has some way to go before improving its track record on environmental protection.

The importance of the move was also underlined by Environment Minister Nick Smith, who reiterated that the oceans are coming to the forefront of the battle for the environment, as “they make up 72 percent of the globe and are home to half of the world’s species.” And yet, “only two percent is protected,” Smith added.

"We congratulate the government for taking decisive action to protect this incredibly special area from mining and fishing," WWF New Zealand chief executive Chris Howard said, according to AFP.

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"This decision puts New Zealand back at the forefront of marine protection on the global stage,” he added.

Currently, the largest ocean reserve is in the central Pacific, and has been created by the United States. It is an expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, and coverse 490,000 sq. mi roughly the size of three Californias.