New Marine Conservation Area to Span Four Nations

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"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.

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