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.

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