New Marine Conservation Area to Span Four Nations

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
February 26, 2004
The creation of one of the world's largest marine protected areas was
announced this week by a consortium of Latin American nations,
conservation groups, and United Nations agencies. The new reserve will
span 521 million acres (211 million hectares) of ocean, from Costa
Rica's Cocos Island to Ecuador's Galápagos Islands and beyond.

The planned marine reserve promises greater protection to a wide range of ocean species found there, including sperm whales, dolphins, tuna, sharks, and turtles.

Led by the UN's World Heritage Centre, the four-year, U.S. $3.1-million project will link and expand existing marine reserves and consolidate current and planned conservation efforts in the region.

Signatories hope the effort can help save critically endangered leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) and protect migration routes and habitat crucial to imperiled sea life like the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). The seascape will be the largest marine conservation area in the Western Hemisphere.

The creation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape was announced at the start of this week's 24th Symposium on Sea Turtle Conservation and Biology held in San Jose, Costa Rica, which has drawn some 1,000 experts from 80 nations.

The symposium comes at a critical juncture for some marine species. A report released at the conference today argues that the Pacific leatherback turtle may be extinct within ten years unless a strategy to save the population is rapidly implemented.

Research indicates that in a little over two decades, the number of reproductive female Pacific leatherback turtles has plummeted nearly 97 percent. Scientists estimate just 3,000 reproductive females remain today, compared with some 115,000 females in 1982.

Better Enforcement

The United Nations Foundation will provide just over U.S. $1.5 million for the new marine preserve. The Washington D.C.-based environmental group Conservation International and other donors will match that figure. Panama, Colombia, and other nations involved in the project are expected to provide millions of dollars of additional funding.

While detailed protection statutes for the marine preserve have yet to be decided, heightened enforcement of existing fishing regulations and other national and international conservation agreements will be high on the agenda, said Roderic Mast. Mast is president of the International Sea Turtle Society and vice president of Conservation International.

"This initiative is right now a commitment from the four countries whose exclusive economic zone lies within the seascape [Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama]," Mast said. "This is a first step, and now environmental groups are responsible for filling the gaps."

Linking together the region's five existing protected areas will go hand in hand with consolidating and coordinating conservation efforts across nations. The proposal and creation of future UN-designated World Heritage sites will also feature in the initiative.

"Some of the protected areas in this seascape are already World Heritage sites. But protection and management at several more will be enhanced, under this initiative, to standards that make them befitting of World Heritage status," said Seema Paul, a senior program officer for biodiversity at the Washington, D.C.-based United Nations Foundation.

The United Nations designates natural areas of exceptional ecological importance with World Heritage status in hopes of ensuring protected status and preservation for future generations.

Ripple Effect

Existing reserves to be linked by the initiative include Panama's Coiba Island National Park, Colombia's Gorgona National Park, and the 19 Galápagos Islands that are found 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) off the coast of South America. The Galápagos Islands are home to Darwin's finches and many other rare animal species, 300 species of fish, and a population of 750,000 seabirds.

Similarly diverse, Costa Rica's Cocos Island National Park supports the only island tropical rain forest in the eastern Pacific. Its nearly pristine waters sustain many large pelagic, or open-sea, fish species, including rays, sharks, dolphins, and tuna.

"This initiative recognizes that marine species travel over wide areas," Mast, the Conservation International vice president, said. "The seascape concept attempts to put an artificial ring around areas big enough to conserve widely migrating animals."

Several ecologically important ocean currents collide within the boundaries of the new preserve. Backers say conservation efforts there could have a positive ripple effect on biodiversity in the region.

According to UNESCO, recent investigations indicate that the marine region may play a key role in dispersal of young fish. The region is also used as a migration route by large sharks, tuna, sea turtles, and whales.

Land Purchase

Unregulated fishing in the Pacific Ocean has severely impacted the leatherback sea turtle, a wide-ranging species found there. Longline fishing has been particularly damaging.

The practice entails a single boat trailing 8,000 or more hooks over tens of miles of ocean to catch tuna, swordfish, and other species. Many turtles are unintentionally snagged and killed in the process.

Some new funding for the marine preserve will be used to purchase land around important leatherback nesting beaches in Costa Rica, Mast said. Costa Rica's Las Baulas National Park is one of a few major leatherback nesting sites remaining in the Pacific Ocean.

John Calambokidis—a blue whale expert with the Olympia, Washington-based nonprofit research organization Cascadia Research—said it's difficult to judge at this early stage what activities will be restricted in the preserve, what its exact boundaries will be, and whether the marine park will cover key blue whale habitats.

Today 12 percent of the Earth's surface falls under some kind of conservation protection, but less than 1 percent of that area extends to the oceans.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.