Australian Wetlands Database

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Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve


Key facts and figures:

Date of listing:

21 October 2002

Elizabeth Reef (1997), Photo: Mark Hallam

Australian Ramsar site number:



1, 2, 3, 4, 7, 8


External Territories


The area enclosed by the Site boundary (Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve) is 187,726 hectares. The area of reef wetland within the Reserve has not been accurately determined but is estimated to be approximately 8000 hectares of which 3500 hectares is at Elizabeth Reef and 4500 hectares is at Middleton Reef. In each case, the area of wetland which is enclosed by the coral atoll includes some water more than 6.0 metres deep at low tide.

Drainage Division or IMCRA  region:

Lord Howe Province

Wetland type: 

  • A - Permanent shallow marine waters in most cases less than six metres deep at low tide; includes sea bays and straits
  • 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:

Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve is located in the northern Tasman Sea, in Australia's East Marine Region. It is 630 km east of Coffs Harbour, New South Wales, and 690 km east-south-east of Brisbane, Queensland. Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs are remote coral reef atolls that occur atop isolated, oceanic sea mounts, 50 km apart from each other.

They are the most southerly open ocean platform reefs in the world and their coral reef communities are influenced both by tropical and temperate ocean currents. As isolated oceanic wetlands with no permanent dry land, the Reef perimeters provide the only buffer to high-energy impacts of ocean swells and waves, and thus provide for remote sheltered wetland habitats within a vast region of oceanic waters of the western Pacific Ocean.

Reef building corals and algae form the dominant components of habitat complexity and ecological features of the site. Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs support several coral species at or near their northern or southern limits of distribution, and species which can self-recruit to the same reef. Seagrass occurs only as scattered plants on the sheltered sandy lagoons at both reefs.

The fish communities include seven undescribed fishes and a number of species with specialised habitats and relatively restricted geographic distributions. The Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs populations of the Galapagos Reef Shark form a single genetic stock, which is distinct from the only other Australian population, 173km further south at Lord Howe Island. Threatened species known to utilise the site include the Humpback Whale, Green Turtle, Leatherback Turtle, and Wandering Albatross.

At least 30 ships have been recorded wrecked on the Reefs, dating back to the late 18th Century, making the area of considerable marine archaeological significance. Except for the remains of more recent wrecks, which are a conspicuous feature of the Ramsar site, the majority of wrecks have not been accurately located. The wreck Fuku Maru on Middleton Reef supports a small breeding colony of Sea Terns, which due to lack of suitable dry land, otherwise would not occur at the Ramsar site.

Currently, Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs are mainly use for nature conservation and scientific research, with limited recreational diving and fishing also occurring.

Justification of the listing criteria:

The Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs Marine National Nature Reserve Ramsar site meets six of the nine criteria:

Criterion 1: Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs may each be considered as both rare and representative examples of coral reef wetland in the Lord Howe Province marine bioregion as they are among the few, and largest, present. Furthermore, these reefs are distinctive in occurring atop oceanic sea mounts, and are the southernmost open ocean platform coral reefs in the world. They represent an environment which is not present anywhere else in waters associated with the Australian continent, and support unique coral reef and fish communities.

Criterion 2: Fifteen species known or considered to occur at the site are listed as threatened under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act 1999). These include cetaceans, marine turtles, seabirds and fish.

Criterion 3: In view of the rarity of reef habitat in this oceanic region and the moderately large number of marine animal species and diversity of species recorded at the Ramsar site, clearly the Reefs are 'hotspots' of biological diversity in the region. At least 322 fish species are known at these Reefs, along with 122 species of corals, 122 crustaceans, 240 molluscs and 74 echinoderms.

Criterion 4: A small population of Green Turtle uses the reefs primarily for food and shelter. At least 12 species of migratory waterbirds use the Reefs as resting places. These are mostly terns such as Sooty Tern and boobies such as Masked Booby. Conceivably, the reefs provide shelter and feeding areas for juvenile stages of marine species which have more open water adult stages, and also provide rare shelter for other species during severe storms.

Criterion 7: Approximately 322 native fish species have been recorded at the Reefs. They include a highly diverse range of sizes, shapes, reproductive types and life strategies. These fish communities in turn support a diverse and complex range of other ecosystem components and processes.

Criterion 8: Although fish species larvae may at times recruit to this remote location from other areas, it appears that most reef fish populations within the Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs must complete their entire life cycle on these reefs. Two key predators, the Black Cod and the Galapagos Reef Shark, complete their life cycle on these reefs. The predominance of immature Galapagos reef sharks in the lagoons suggests that these habitats are important nursery habitat for the species. Several other fish species of commercial and recreational value complete their life cycle on these reefs.

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.