By Cecile Lefort
WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Waters north of New Zealand are set to become one of the world's largest ocean sanctuaries, covering an area roughly the size of France, with a full ban on fishing and mining, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key said at the United Nations on Monday.
Called the Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary, the area covers 620,000 square kms (239,000 square miles) of ocean, and encompasses a string of undersea volcanoes and is home to endangered marine life including whales, dolphins and turtles.
The announcement surprised New Zealand's seafood export industry, worth NZ$1.4 billion ($882 million) a year, and will prevent mining firms gaining seabed prospecting rights.
"With no forewarning from government, the industry needs time to consider the full implications," said George Clement, chairman of industry body Seafood New Zealand.
He added the ban would also apply to tuna, the fourth largest seafood export, according to 2013 data.
The sanctuary legislation, tabled by the government for 2016, will also preclude all mining exploration and prospecting activities in the area.
Canadian firm Nautilus Minerals is awaiting a permit to prospect in the Kermadec area, while it is already working on digging up a massive sulphide deposit off Papua New Guinea.
Nautilus is one of many natural resource firms, including U.S.-based Neptune Minerals, U.S.-listed Odyssey Marine Exploration, Singapore-based OMS and New Zealand's Trans-Tasman Resources, racing to mine the ocean floor.
Along the Pacific Rim of Fire, vast beds of manganese nodules hold promise for economic powers like China and Japan. Other countries in the Pacific looking at underwater mining include Fiji, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu.
The Kermadec sanctuary announcement comes after efforts by Australia and New Zealand to establish the world's largest marine sanctuary off Antarctica were thwarted by Russia and China.
Other marine protected areas recently announced include the Australian Coral Sea Commonwealth Marine Reserve and the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve announced by the U.K.
(Reporting by Cecile Lefort; Editing by Michael Perry)