By James Grubel
CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia created the world's largest network of marine national parks on Friday, protecting an area of ocean the size of Western Europe in a move which will prevent oil and gas exploration and commercial fishing in the most sensitive areas.
Environment Minister Tony Burke said the decision would protect 2.3 million square kilometers (888,035 square miles) of ocean, including the tropical Coral Sea off the north Queensland coast and coral reefs off Australia's southwest, and help support endangered sea life.
"We don't want people to only know the magnificence of their oceans through aquariums or by watching 'Finding Nemo'," Burke told reporters.
The new reserves will be established from the Perth Canyon in the southwest to Kangaroo Island off the southern coast, and to the Coral Sea area which surrounds the Great Barrier Reef in the northeast.
The new marine reserves will limit commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration in the most sensitive areas, but won't prevent shipping, tourism or diving.
The decision has angered the commercial fishing industry, particularly from the northern Queensland state, while recreational fishing groups are also angered at the loss of access to some areas.
Burke said the new marine reserves would only affect around one percent of Australia's commercial fishing, and the government would spend A$100 million ($103.28 million) to compensate commercial fishers for the loss of access.
He said most recreational fishing would continue as normal, as the parks were hundreds of kilometers offshore and well out of range for recreational fishing.
But fishing supporters complained that they were being discriminated against.
"The government is discriminating against recreational fishers by allowing divers, tourist operators, container ships and even defense force activities into marine parks, but banning fishing families from catching a fish," recreational fishing foundation director Allan Hansard said.
Earlier this year, a United Nations report said Australia's world-famous Great Barrier Reef was under threat from industrial development and may be considered for listing as a world heritage site ?"in danger" within the next year.
($1 = 0.9683 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by James Grubel, editing by Elaine Lies)