09/06/2011 11:16 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Proposed Australia Marine Sanctuaries Need To Be Bigger, Say Conservationists

Wildlife conservationists have hit back at draft plans for global sanctuaries in Australia aimed at protecting vulnerable marine life.

Felicia Wishart of the Australian organization The Wilderness Society said in an August statement that the government's proposal fails to fully protect iconic sites from oil and gas drilling, sea bed mining and overfishing.

The draft plans, released by Australian Environment Minister Tony Burke on August 23, aim to protect north and north-west waters home to dugongs, whale sharks, marine turtles, sawfish and more than 10,000 humpback whales who migrate to mate and give birth in the waters off the Kimberley region of Australia.

Many of these animals are endemic to Australia and for creatures like the flatback turtle, the northern coasts of the country are one of the only areas in the world where they are known to breed, according to the IUCN Marine Turtle Specialist Group.

Conservation groups like the recently formed Save Our Tropical Sealife say if the government fails to create large sanctuaries for marine life, they are risking letting the biggest conservation victory "slip through their fingers."

The proposed sanctuary networks start 3.4 miles off the coast and will cover a north-west region of 145,675 miles and a northern region of 46,998 miles, according to Tony Burke's statement.

The Wilderness Society says that this means less than 12 percent of north and less than three percent of north-west coastal areas will be protected.

"This proposal does a better job of protecting the oil and gas industry in the Kimberley than it does our vulnerable marine life. On top of that, the tropical sea life of vast swathes of ocean including Ningaloo, the Pilbara, the Kimberley, Top End and Gulf of Carpentaria remain exposed to destructive fishing practices," Emma Belfield of the environmental group Environs Kimberley said.

Tony Burke said in his same press release that the Australian government had worked with environment groups, the fishing industry, recreational fishing groups and other marine users in the development of draft bioregional plans and a proposed marine reserves networks for the north and north-west.

"Australia's tropical seas are among the most biologically significant on the planet and are some of the last remaining healthy, large tropical marine ecosystems left on Earth," Jess Abrahams of the Australian Marine Conservation Society said in a press statement.

Abrahams continued, "With increasing human pressure on the world's tropical marine environments, the science is clear about what is needed to save our marine life and fish stocks -- a scientifically based network of large marine sanctuaries."

The proposal has a consultation period until November 28, 2011.