Saturday, January 09, 2010

Whale shark's home in World Heritage bid

A major stretch of the Western Australian coastline is being put forward as the 18th national World Heritage site after a deal between State and Federal governments was struck to protect the Ningaloo Coast.

Ningaloo is a virtually untouched barrier reef stretching 260 kilometres on the north-west cape, an area that includes Coral Bay and Exmouth.

The site is home to the largest fish in the world, the whale shark, and is populated by manta rays, sea snakes, whales, turtles and more than 500 species of tropical fish and 220 varieties of coral.

More than 700,000 hectares of the oceanic wilderness will get special protection if the United Nations agrees to the World Heritage list nomination, which follows a campaign stretching through most of the past decade.

The deal, announced today in Perth by Federal Heritage Minister Peter Garrett and WA Environment Minister Donna Faragher, came after the State Government relaxed its resistance to the move.

"The Ningaloo Coast tells an extraordinary story of biogeography, climate change, the assembling of continents and the opening of oceans, biological richness and environmental conservation,
" Mr Garrett said.

"The World Heritage nomination reflects that Ningaloo is internationally significant for its role in the protection of an exceptional number of marine and terrestrial species.

"From its spectacular coral reefs to the beautiful sponge gardens of the continental slope, the richness of the area's biodiversity is awesome in the true sense of the word."

The heritage listing could have an impact on the tourism sector of the region, which has enjoyed growth as a destination for snorkellers and divers for its diversity of sea life.

Part of the attraction for tourists comes from the fact that exotic sea life is as close as 100 metres from the shore, setting Ningaloo apart from the Great Barrier Reef, which requires significant boat travel to reach some of the more appealing destinations.

The nomination, recognising the outstanding biological diversity of the region, is for an area of 708,000 hectares in midwest Western Australia, and includes Cape Range on Exmouth Peninsula, a coastal strip extending about 260 kilometres south to Red Bluff, as well as adjacent dunefields, marine areas, reefs and islands.

A 224,000-hectare part of the site was designated as a protected marine park in 1987.

The site has become a celebrated cause among many West Australians, including celebrated author Tim Winton who became a leading advocate of the area's heritage value.

Mr Winton, at one time the vice president of the Marine Conservation Society in Western Australia, had previously described his first encounter with the reef.

"My introduction to Ningaloo was just a ravishing and sensual experience of swimming with whale sharks all day and bronze whaler sharks as well, and just being blown away by the awe of this great, holy creature," he previously told the ABC.

"It was amazing."

In the early 2000s, heritage defenders successfully fought off a proposal for a resort at an area known as Maud's Landing, a major nesting ground of the loggerhead turtle.

The reef is one of just two in the world to form on the western side of a continental land mass.

There are currently 890 cultural and natural heritage sites included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation'
s World Heritage list.

Sites are chosen by the World Heritage Committee, which assesses whether the sites have "outstanding universal value".

The listing of a site requires the national government to manage the sites to protect the heritage value, which can include protecting endangered species and reducing the impact of human activity.

If the nomination is successful, Ningaloo will become the 18th Australian site on the list, joining the Great Barrier Reef, the Tasmanian Wilderness and Uluru.

Ningaloo has also been included in the National Heritage list, making it the 89th item on the list.

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