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Australia Takes Barriers Off World's Greatest Reef

Pristine areas will be opened to fishing to see how long it takes stocks to replenish

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His part of northeastern Australia seems blessed with more than its fair share of colors. The mountains above are a palette of incandescent blues and greens. The emerald sea below is home to flamboyantly colored tropical fish that dart about the nearby Great Barrier Reef.

On his recent tour of Australia, President Clinton chose this stunning backdrop to speak about the rather gray topic of reducing worldwide emissions of harmful greenhouse gases.

Yet even as he spoke, the Australian Parliament passed legislation that critics saw as an attack on the environment. The new laws would open up eight reefs, about 4 percent of the entire reef, previously zoned for no fishing, as part of a controversial experiment to measure how fast the reefs can recover.

The legislation has been condemned by environmentalists who say the experiment is inappropriate for the world's largest coral reef. The Great Barrier Reef, which extends some 1,200 miles along Australia's northeast coast, is widely regarded as one of the world's greatest natural treasures.

When these eight so-called "green" reefs are opened, an equivalent number of "blue," or fished, reefs will be closed during the five-year experiment.

Bruce Mapstone of the Cooperative Research Center for the Ecologically Sustainable Development of the Great Barrier Reef, project leader for the experiment, argues that the study is crucial to future management of the fishery. "It is important, in order for us to judge how much fishing should be allowed, to have a reference point of what an unfished population looks like to assess how much a fished population can withstand and remain viable," Dr. Mapstone says.

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