Australian Wetlands Database

Ramsar wetlands

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Coral Sea Reserves (Coringa-Herald and Lihou Reefs and Cays).


Key facts and figures:

Date of listing:

21 October 2002

South West Coringa Islet (2005), Photo: Australian Customs Service

Australian Ramsar site number:



1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8


External Territories


The Site boundary corresponds to the boundaries of Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve (885,249 ha, including a 124 ha terrestrial component), and Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve (843,670 ha, including a 91 ha terrestrial component); thus the collective area of the Site is 1,728,920 (1.7 million) ha. Most of this bounded area is in oceanic depths. The total area of reef- and cay-associated wetland (mostly fringing reef) within the Reserve has not been accurately determined but is estimated to be at least 30,000 ha of which about 5,000 ha is in Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve and about 25,000 ha is in Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve. For Lihou Reef, this estimate does not include the interior of the enclosed lagoon: the lagoon comprises in the order of 300,000 ha of water of varied depth to 60m.

Drainage Division or IMCRA  region:

Northeast Province

Wetland type: 

  • C - Coral reefs
  • E - Sand, shingle or pebble shores; includes sand bars, spits and sandy islets; includes dune systems and humid dune slacks

Key features of the site:

The Coral Sea Reserves Ramsar site lies in the central Coral Sea and is comprised of oceanic islet and reef habitats that are representative of the region. The site has two major components, Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve and Lihou Reef National Nature Reserve. The two reserves are about 100 km apart and together they lie on the Coral Sea Plateau, which is separated from the Great Barrier Reef by an area of deep water known as the Queensland Trough.

The marine habitats present in the shallower areas of both Reserves are front (windward) reef slopes, exposed reef crests/rims, reef flats, back (leeward) reef crests, back reef slopes, reef shoals, and inter-reef channels. The islets and cays of the site are composed of sand, rock and coral rubble, and each has a fringing coral reef. The islets are low (not exceeding 5 m above mean sea level) with limited freshwater bodies fed by direct overhead rainfall, and no upstream surface or groundwater sources. Some islets support freshwater sufficient for vegetation such as Pisonia forests, shrubs and/or other herbs and grasses, which in turn are important for roosting and nesting for birds.

The Coral Sea Reserves are an important habitat for the nationally threatened Green Turtle and Hawksbill Turtle. Bird species such as the Eastern Reef Egret, Buff-banded Rail, Purple Swamphen and Wedge-tailed Shearwater are known to breed within the Ramsar site. The diverse marine life of the Ramsar site also differs from the nearby Great Barrier Reef with sponges being more abundant than coral.

Many ships have been wrecked on Lihou Reef, and documented wrecks date from the 1890's onward. The wreck of the Coringa Packet, lying off Chilcott Islet in the Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserve, is dated at 1845. Shipwrecks located within the Reserves are protected under the Historic Shipwrecks Act 1976 if they are more than 75 years old. The Coral Sea Reserves are currently used for nature conservation, scientific research, and recreational diving.

Justification of the listing criteria:

The Coral Sea Reserves (Coringa-Herald and Lihou Reefs and Cays) Ramsar site meets seven of the nine criteria:

Criterion 1: Coringa-Herald and Lihou Reefs and Cays Ramsar site includes several representative examples of coral reef, particularly the sub-type "shelf-edge oceanic coral reef", and the largest and least disturbed examples of this sub-type in the Northeast Provincial bioregion. The reef communities within the Ramsar site are also considered to be in near-pristine condition with minimal evidence of disturbance by humans or of coral predators that otherwise occur in nearby reef systems. The Ramsar site also includes the only forested reef cays in the bioregion, making it an outstanding breeding site for several key waterbird species.

Criterion 2: The Coral Sea Reserves support the nationally threatened Green Turtle, which is also known to breed on the sandy islets of the Coringa-Herald cluster and on 11 cays of Lihou Reef. The Hawksbill Turtle, also nationally threatened, has been sighted within the Reserves, but has not been observed nesting.

Criterion 3: The Ramsar site can be considered a 'hotspot' of biodiversity within the Coral Sea. Species diversity includes at least 390 species of coral reef fish, 29 waterbird species, 128 crustaceans, 140 hard corals, 745 marine molluscs, and various starfish, brittle stars, feather stars, and sea urchins. Furthermore, it is likely that the Coral Sea reefs provide stepping-stones for the dispersal of species between the Great Barrier Reef and Pacific Ocean reefs. This is supported by the presence of Pacific Ocean corals.

Criterion 4: The sandy cays of the Ramsar site support important isolated breeding colonies of Green Turtle. The nesting sites are especially important because they are almost totally free from disturbances such as artificial lighting, human beach use, pollution, feral animals and boat traffic.

The Coral Sea Reserves also include the only forested cays in the Coral Sea Islands Territory, and supports breeding colonies of 14 seabird species. Furthermore, at least eight species of migratory shorebird, such as Pacific Golden Plover and Ruddy Turnstone use the site's reefs and cays as migration stop-over areas, although in small numbers.

Criterion 5: Breeding waterbirds at the North-East (Herald) Cay have regularly been recorded in numbers in excess of 20,000. The population of breeding Black Noddy alone is in the order of tens of thousands. Other breeding populations recorded at North-East Herald, which contribute to the total, include Least Frigatebird, Great Frigatebird, Red-footed Booby, and Red-tailed Tropicbird.

Criterion 7: At least 390 species of coral reef fish occur at the Ramsar site. Several of the groups of fish are present, indicating a high level of biological diversity in the fish fauna. The fish communities of the Coral Sea Reserves in turn support a diverse and complex range of other ecosystem components and processes, such as multiple food webs, re-cycling, breakdown of coralline materials, and algal grazing.

Criterion 8: It is assumed that the productive shallow waters of the site's reefs and lagoons are a significant nursery area for fish that have open-water adult stages. Surveys indicate that the families of fish with the greatest diversity of species found at the site include the Wrasses, Damsel fish, Surgeon fish, Butterfly fish, Cods, Coral Trouts, and Parrot fish.

Please see the More Information page for additional information on this Ramsar site and access to the Ramsar Information sheets and other associated site documents.