5 July 2024


WWF-Australia has welcomed a proposal to quadruple the size of Heard and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve near Antarctica, but warned critical foraging grounds for penguins, fish and seabirds need stronger protection to preserve one of the last truly wild places on Earth.

Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek today announced a proposal to significantly expand the size of Australia’s most remote marine reserve.

Located in the Southern Ocean about 4,100 km southwest of Perth, Heard and McDonald Islands provide vital feeding and breeding grounds for Antarctic fur seals, elephant seals, macaroni penguins, albatross and fish.

Sixteen species of baleen and toothed whales can also be found in the region, including blue whales, fin whales, killer whales, humpback whales, minke whales, southern right whales, and Arnoux’s beaked whales.

Heard and McDonald Islands and their surrounding waters provide a haven for penguins, whales, seals, seabirds and fish. © CSIRO / Pete Harmsen

WWF-Australia’s Head of Oceans, Richard Leck welcomed the government’s proposal to expand the marine reserve, but said strong protection was missing for many key conservation areas.

“Expanding the marine park's boundaries is a positive step, and we’re pleased to see an increase in sanctuary zones, including shelf protection to the north of the islands and deeper water habitats to the south and southeast of Heard Island,” said Mr Leck.

“This would provide a high level of protection to key habitats for fish species and critical foraging grounds for albatrosses.

“However, the new zoning plan fails to provide increased protection for most of the high conservation value areas identified in the government’s own scientific review and an independent science review.

“This includes key spawning grounds for toothfish, unique canyon habitats, productive waters around seamounts and Williams Ridge, and feeding grounds for macaroni penguins and seabirds on the eastern slope of the islands.

“These habitats will become even more important as the pressures of climate change intensify, so they require the highest level of protection.”

Without increased protection, these critical foraging grounds will remain exposed to pressures like commercial fishing.

Public consultation on the new zoning plan is now open as part of a once-in-a-decade review.

A sea bird flies by a glacier on Heard Island. © CSIRO / Pete Harmsen

WWF-Australia has launched a petition calling on the Australian Government to significantly expand Heard and McDonald Islands Marine Reserve and increase protections from industries like fishing.

“Australia has a unique opportunity to protect one of the last truly wild places on Earth,” said Mr Leck.

“The Heard and McDonald Islands are the only subantarctic island group with an entirely intact ecosystem, meaning no other species have been introduced by humans. This allows biological and evolutionary processes to occur naturally on the islands - and provides an important climate indicator for the region.

“The islands and surrounding waters provide critical habitat for whales, seabirds, seals and fish. They are also a haven for some of our planet's most iconic and ecologically significant penguin species, including macaroni, eastern rockhopper, gentoo and king penguins.

“The government’s scientific review recognised the global significance of these waters and acknowledged there was inadequate protection for key foraging areas.

“Strengthening protections would provide a refuge for wildlife to develop resilience to a changing climate, away from additional pressures like fishing, pollution, and invasive species.

“The federal government showed that Australia can be a leader in providing science-based protection for marine wildlife with its zoning plan for Macquarie Island.

“We urge Minister Plibersek to listen to the science again and increase protection and sanctuary zones around Australia’s other subantarctic territory.

“The Australian Government wants to be a world leader in ocean protection, and this is a unique opportunity to step up and safeguard a pristine ecosystem.”