The Arafura Sea is west of the Pacific Ocean overlying the continental shelf between Australia and New Guinea. It is bordered by Torres Strait and through that the Coral Sea to the east, the Gulf of Carpentaria to the south, the Timor Sea to the west and the Banda and Ceram seas to the northwest. It is 1290 kilometres (800 miles) long and 560 kilometres (350 miles) wide. The depth of the sea is primarily 50-80 metres (165-265 feet) with the depth increasing to the west. As a shallow tropical sea, its waters are a breeding ground for tropical cyclones.
The sea lies over the Arafura Shelf, part of the Sahul Shelf. When sea levels were low during the last glacial maximum, the Arafura Shelf, the Gulf of Carpentaria and Torres Strait formed a large flat land bridge connecting Australia and New Guinea and easing migration of humans from Asia into Australia. The combined landmass formed the continent of Sahul.
The name first appeared in use in GW Earl's 1837 "Sailing Directions for the Arafura" in which he compiled translations from earlier Dutch mariner explorations.
It has been suggested that the name Arafura is of Portuguese origin, being the corruption of the word "Alfours"meaning "free men", but recent research at the Dutch National Archives has revealed AJ van der Aa's 1939 Toponymic Dictionary records "the inhabitants of the Moluccas called themselves "haraforas", translating "Anak anak gunung" as "children of the mountains"."
The Arafura Sea name is therefore from the indigenous name for "the people of mountains" in the Moluccas (part of Indonesia) as identified by Dutch Lieutenants Kolff and Modera in the 1830s." Place Names Committee for the Northern Territory web site
In a world where marine ecosystems and fish stocks are generally collapsing, the Arafura Sea stands at the global maximum of marine biodiversity. This sea, however, is coming under intense pressure from illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing activities. If this trend persists, the fish protein dependent communities that surround the sea will face a considerable challenge in sustaining their livelihoods.
Increasing economic growth and maintaining environment quality are two main challenges to achieve sustainable development in coastal areas of the sea. Utilization of marine and fisheries resources for economic development of particular area must be conducted in coordinative manner and through appropriate approaches which take into consideration the sustainable aspects of the environment.
Established in 2002, the Arafura and Timor Seas Expert Forum (ATSEF) seeks to promote economically and environmentally sustainable management of the seas.