Coral Sea Islands

The Coral Sea Islands Territory was established as a Territory of the Commonwealth in 1969 under the Coral Sea Islands Act 1969.

The Coral Sea Islands Territory is made up of the islands situated in an area of approximately 780,000 square kilometres of the Coral Sea extending from the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef. The coral and sand islands are quite small with some grass and low vegetation cover.

Only Willis Island is inhabited by Meteorological Bureau staff. Unmanned weather stations, beacons and a lighthouse are located on several other islands and reefs.

The Coral Sea Islands Act 1969 was amended in 1997 to extend the boundaries of the Coral Sea Islands Territory around Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs. The reefs are approximately 150 kilometres north of Lord Howe Island in the Tasman Sea.

Governance and administration

The laws of the Australian Capital Territory (so far as they are applicable) apply in the Territory and the Supreme Court of Norfolk Island (which consists of Judges of the Federal Court) exercises criminal jurisdiction in the Territory.

Commonwealth laws only apply when they are expressed to extend to the Territory. Any Commonwealth or Australian Capital Territory Act that extends to the Territory applies to the islands and the 12 mile territorial sea around each island.

The Governor-General may make Coral Sea Islands Territory Ordinances for the peace, order and good government of the Territory where additional legislation for the Territory is specifically required.

Environment and heritage

Currently, Commonwealth interest in the Coral Sea Islands Territory is mainly through the Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture.

In 1982 Lihou Reef and Coringa-Herald National Nature Reserves were established under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975.

Requests for permission to undertake commercial fishing in the area are referred to Department of the Environment and the Australian Fisheries Management Authority.

Officers of the Department of the Environment make regular visits to the Coral Sea Islands. The Royal Australian Navy and Australian Customs and Border Protection Service conduct sea and aerial surveillance of the area.

Elizabeth and Middleton Reefs have been declared a Marine National Nature Reserve and are administered by the Department of the Environment.


On 20 July 1788 Lieutenant John Shortland discovered Middleton Reef on his return journey from Australia to Batavia (Jakarta). It was named Middleton Shoal in honour of Admiral Sir Charles Theodore Middleton.

The discovery of Elizabeth Reef is assumed to have been by that of ships Claudine and Marquis of Hastings, which reported the existence of a reef to the south of Middleton Reef in 1820.

Historically, it had been thought that the islands and reefs in the Coral Sea were deemed to be British possessions in virtue of Captain Cook's annexation of the east coast of Australia and the off-lying islands on 22 August, 1770; Australia's acquisition of the Coral Sea Islands began at federation in 1901. A manned weather station has been in operation on Willis Island since 1921; however, the territory is otherwise uninhabited.

In 1936 increased Japanese fishing activities, reawakened French and German territorial interests, developing trans-oceanic air services and Australia's growing naval effectiveness gave the Islands a distinct potential value.

The Australian and United Kingdom Governments exchanged a number of letters during 1930 and 1960, concerning the ownership of the islands in the Coral Sea. In 1968, the United Kingdom Government advised that it did not:

…claim any right or interest in [them] which is inconsistent with the exercise over them by the Australian Government of effective government, administration and control. The United Kingdom Government accordingly recognise that Her Majesty's Sovereignty over the islands, and effective government, administration and control over them, is exercised by the Australian Government.

On 30 September 1969, Australia officially acquired its tenth external territory with the Coral Sea Island Bill coming into force in accordance with the normal procedure. It is Australia's only external territory that was neither transferred to Australia by the UK nor administered by Australia under a mandate or trusteeship agreement.

Coringa-Herald and Lihou Reef were declared Marine National Nature Reserves on the 16 August 1982.

In December 1987 Middleton and Elizabeth Reefs were declared Marine National Nature Reserves under the National Parks and Wildlife Conservation Act 1975.

In 1997 the Coral Sea Islands Act was amended to extend the territory to include Elizabeth and Middleton reefs.