The tiny western Pacific archipelago of Palau has approved the creation of a marine sanctuary twice the size of Mexico.
Conservationists said the 500,000 sq km (193,000 sq mile) sanctuary would be the worldâ€™s sixth-largest fully protected area â€“ meaning no fishing, or other uses such as drilling for oil â€“ if it is signed into law by Palauâ€™s president as expected on Monday.
On Thursday, the national congress of the country of around 21,000 people approved the Palau National Marine Sanctuary Act, which will see 80% of the nationâ€™s maritime territory designated as a reserve. The bill to create it was passed unanimously, 16-0 in the house of delegates, and the senate voted to adopt it.
The US-based Pew Charitable Trusts said Palauâ€™s new sanctuary brought the total area of the oceans fully protected up to 1.9%, though scientists say that figure should be more like 30% to protect fish stocks and the health of the ocean.
â€œToday is a historic day for Palau, proving that a small island nation can have a big impact on the ocean,â€ said the countryâ€™s president, Tommy E Remengesau Jr. Around 20% of the sanctuary will still be accessible to local fishermen.
Pew, which has supported the sanctuary, said there are more than 1,300 species of fish and 700 species of coral around Palauâ€™s hundreds of tiny islands.
â€œCreation of this sanctuary conserves one of the most spectacular ocean environments on Earth,â€ said Seth Horstmeyer, a director of the charityâ€™s Global Ocean Legacy project.