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New Zealand makes strides in marine protection with new sanctuary

The new sanctuary joins the ranks of similar refuges in the region, including the Coral Sea Marine Sanctuary and, most famously, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

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New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key speaks at the Asia Society in New York September 30, 2015.

Shannon Stapleton/REUTERS

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A new environmental sanctuary off the coast of New Zealand, estimated to be nearly the size of France, is expected to provide the mammals, fish, and turtles that live there with a much-needed boon.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key made the official announcement while he was in New York for the United Nations General Assembly, adding that it would encompass 620,000 square kilometers in the Kermadec region, a portion of the sea northeast of New Zealand.

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“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,” Prime Minister Key said.

The new sanctuary joins the ranks of similar sanctuaries in the region, including the Coral Sea Marine Sanctuary, and, most famously, the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. The Great Barrier Reef has been listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site since 1981, and is recognized as such because it contains over 400 types of coral. It is also a breeding ground for humpback whales, which were previously listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as an endangered species but have since rebounded.

Marine sanctuaries are generally considered profitable because they generate recurring revenue from sustainable tourism, in the same way that photographs of land animals in protected parks do. The Guardian reports that the new Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary will cover approximately 15 percent of New Zealand’s economic area, which includes part of the Coral Sea.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) reports that because the Coral Sea is so far away from land, it has not faced the same threats of pollution and over-fishing that have befallen other, similar wild marine areas. The Coral Sea, which covers an area three times the size of the Great Barrier Reef, has not been protected on this scale until this new ocean sanctuary. Not only do unique species like the hammerhead shark call it home, but the sanctuary will also be home to unusual geological formations as well. Its primary threats come from illegal fishing and the exploitation of resources, as governments and territories look more broadly for fuel sources.

“[The sanctuary] contains the world’s longest underwater volcanic arc and the second deepest ocean trench,” Mr. Key said in a statement.

New Zealand has received both criticism and praise for the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, with the majority of the negative comments stemming from the $882-million tuna industry’s concern about the harm the protected area may do to its business.

On the other side of the coin, environmentalists were elated at the news. “We congratulate the government for taking decisive action to protect this incredibly special area from mining and fishing. This decision puts New Zealand back at the forefront of marine protection on the global stage,” WWF-New Zealand’s Chief Executive Chris Howe said in a statement.