The Territory of Ashmore and Cartier Islands is an uninhabited external territory of Australia consisting of four low-lying tropical islands in two separate reefs, and the 12 nautical mile territorial sea generated by the islands. The territory is located in the Indian Ocean situated on the edge of the continental shelf, about 320 km (199 mi) off the northwest coast of Australia and 144 km (89 mi) south of the Indonesian island of Rote.
The Territory comprises Ashmore Reef, which includes West, Middle, and East Islands, and two lagoons, and Cartier Reef, which includes Cartier Island. Ashmore Reef covers approximately 150 km2 (57.9 sq mi) and Cartier Reef 9 km2 (3 sq mi), both to the limits of the reefs. They have a total of 74.1 km (46 mi) of shoreline, measured along the outer edge of the reef.[clarification needed] Australia also claims a 12 nautical mile territorial sea generated by the islands.
West, Middle, and East Islands have a combined land area variously reported as 54 ha, 93 ha, and 112 ha (1 hectare is 0.01 km2, or about 2.5 acres). Cartier Island has a reported land area of 0.4 ha.
By a British Order-in-council dated 23 July 1931, Ashmore and Cartier Islands were placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia, but Australia officially accepted the Territory on 10 May 1934 when the Ashmore and Cartier Islands Acceptance Act 1933 came into operation. The Act authorised the Governor of Western Australia to make Ordinances for the Territory. In July 1938 the Territory was annexed to the Northern Territory, then also administered by the Commonwealth, whose laws, ordinances and regulations applied to the Territory. When self-government was granted to the Northern Territory on 1 July 1978, administration of the Territory was retained by the Commonwealth.
Due to its proximity to Indonesia, and the area being traditional fishing grounds of Indonesian fishermen for centuries, some Indonesian groups claim Ashmore Reef to be part of Rote Ndao Regency of East Nusa Tenggara province. However, the Indonesian government does not appear to actively contest Australia's sovereignty of the Territory. Australia's sovereignty is backed up by the fact that the Territory was not administered by the Netherlands (Indonesia's former colonial power), but by the British before it was transferred to Australia.
In 1983 the Territory was declared a nature reserve under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975, now replaced by the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.
After the islands became a first point of contact with the Australian migration zone, in September 2001, the Australian government excised the Ashmore and Cartier Islands from the Australian migration zone.
Today, the Territory is administered from Canberra by the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development, which is also responsible for the administration of the territories of Christmas Island, Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the Coral Sea Islands, Jervis Bay Territory and Norfolk Island.
The Attorney-General's Department had been responsible for the administration of Australian territories until the 2010 federal election. In that year the responsibility for Australian territories was transferred to the then Department of Regional Australia, Local Government, Arts and Sport, and from 18 September 2013 the Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development has administered Australian territories.
Defence of Ashmore and Cartier Islands is the responsibility of Australia, with periodic visits by the Royal Australian Navy, Royal Australian Air Force and Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.
Nearby Hibernia Reef, 42 km (26 mi) northeast of Ashmore Reef, is not part of the Territory, but belongs to Western Australia. It has no permanently dry land area, although large parts of the reef become exposed during low tide.
The Ashmore Reef Commonwealth Marine Reserve (formerly Ashmore Reef National Nature Reserve), established in August 1983, comprises an area of approximately 583 km2 (225 sq mi). It is of significant biodiversity value as it is in the flow of the Indonesian Throughflow ocean current from the Pacific Ocean through Maritime Southeast Asia to the Indian Ocean. It is also in a surface current west from the Arafura Sea and Timor Sea.
The Reserve comprises several marine habitats, including seagrass meadows, intertidal sand flats, coral reef flats, and lagoons, and supports an important and diverse range of species, including 14 species of sea snakes, a population of dugong that may be genetically distinct, a diverse marine invertebrate fauna, and many endemic species, especially of sea snakes and molluscs. There are feeding and nesting sites for loggerhead, hawksbill and green turtles. It is classified as an Important Bird Area and has 50,000 breeding pairs of various kinds of seabirds. A high abundance and diversity of sea cucumbers, over-exploited on other reefs in the region, is present, with 45 species recorded.
In 2003 the nature reserve was recognised as a wetland of international importance due to the importance of its islands providing a resting place for migratory shorebirds and supporting large seabird breeding colonies. It was designated Ramsar Site 1220 under the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands.
The Cartier Island Commonwealth Marine Reserve (formerly Cartier Island Marine Reserve) was established in June 2000, and comprises an area of approximately 172 km2 (66 sq mi), within a 4 nautical mile radius from the center of Cartier Island, and extends to a depth of 1 km (0.6 mi) below the sea floor. It includes the reef around Cartier island, a small submerged pinnacle called Wave Governor Bank, and two shallow pools to the island's northeast. The Reserve is part of the North-west Commonwealth Marine Reserve Network.
There is no economic activity in the Territory, Ashmore and Cartier Islands being uninhabited. Cartier Island is an unvegetated sand island. Access to Cartier Island is prohibited because of the risk of unexploded ordnances. There are no ports or harbours, only offshore anchorage. The customs vessel ACV Ashmore Guardian is stationed off the reef for up to 330 days per year. The islands are also visited by seasonal caretakers and occasional scientific researchers.
The area has been a traditional fishing ground of Indonesian fishermen for centuries, and continues. In the 1850s, American whalers operated in the region. Mining of phosphate deposits took place on Ashmore Island in the latter half of the 19th century. Today, all the wells in the Territory are infected with cholera or contaminated and undrinkable.
Petroleum extraction activities take place at the Jabiru and Challis oil fields, which are adjacent to the Territory, and which are administered by the Northern Territory Department of Mines and Energy on behalf of the Commonwealth.
As Ashmore Reef is the closest point of Australian territory to Indonesia, it was a popular target for people smugglers transporting asylum seekers en route to Australia. Once they had landed on Ashmore Island, asylum seekers could claim to have entered Australian migration zone and request to be processed as refugees. The use of Ashmore Island for this purpose created great notoriety during late 2001, when refugee arrivals became a major political issue in Australia. The Australian Government argued that as Australia was not the country of first asylum for these "boat people", Australia did not have a responsibility to accept them.
A number of things were done to discourage the use of the Territory for this purpose, such as attempting to have the people smugglers arrested in Indonesia; the so-called Pacific Solution of processing them in third countries; the boarding and forced turnaround of the boats by Australian military forces; and finally excising the Territory and many other small islands from the Australian migration zone.
Two boatloads of asylum seekers were each detained for several days in the lagoon at Ashmore Island after failed attempts by the Royal Australian Navy to turn them back to Indonesia in October 2001.
Within the reef are three small islands: West, Middle and east Islands (total land area 54 ha). The largest and most heavily vegetated is West Island...
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