Costa Rica Creates Giant Marine Reserve

Cocos Island-sharks-protected area-seamounts-fishingMarch 7, 2011- Nick Engelfried

Last week the Costa Rican government announced formation of one of the biggest marine protected areas in the eastern Pacific Ocean—a move that will help protect habitat for sharks, tuna, sea turtles, and other tropical marine species.  The new Seamounts Marine Management Area surrounds Cocos Island, a tiny tropical island more than three hundred miles off the western shore of Costa Rica.  The area is home to thirty forms of marine life found only in the waters off Costa Rica, and supports one of the largest concentrations of big sharks found anywhere in the world.

“This new protected area gives us a better chance to ensure that these species will thrive for future generations to marvel at for many decades to come,” said Dr. Bryan Wallace of Conservation International, one of the groups that pushed to create the new reserve.

The Seamounts Marine Management Area covers close to a million hectares (a hectare is about two and a half acres), and dramatically expands the boundaries of an existing protected area in the waters of Cocos Island National Park.  The protected area gets its name from a cluster of seamounts, or underwater mountains, located within its boundaries.  Seamounts are among the least-explored but most vulnerable ecosystems in the oceans, making protection of the ones near Cocos Island particularly important.  The tops of many seamounts are home to a vast diversity of slow-growing invertebrates such as corals and sea lilies. 

Some seamount species are unique to a particular cluster of seamounts, having evolved in isolation over millions of years.  Unfortunately many of these ecosystems have been severely damaged by ocean trawling, a fishing practice that involves scraping the ocean floor to catch bottom-dwelling fish.  Fishing trawls break, bury, and otherwise damage corals and other life forms that live on seamounts, devastating marine habitats that will take centuries to recover.  Luckily seamounts near Cocos Island have never been trawled so far, and the new protected area should help keep them safe for the future.

“Creating a protected seamount area sets an important precedent,” said Marco Quesada from Conservation International.  “Seamounts host endemic species, and the deep water that upwells along their sides brings nutrients that support rich feeding grounds for sea life on the surface. Seamounts serve as stepping stones for long-distance migratory species, including sharks, turtles, whales and tuna.”

In addition to preserving important seamounts, the new protected area excludes certain types of fishing within its boundaries.  At the same time long-line fishing will still be allowed in parts of the protected area—a decision that has already drawn criticism from environmentalists.  Conservation groups say all types of fishing should be banned in the protected area, providing a fully protected sanctuary where large fish populations can recover.

Even with the continued practice of long-line fishing, establishment of the Seamounts Marine Management Area is a big leap forward for threatened sea life.  The protected area is home to large but vulnerable fish species like the white-tipped reef shark, scalloped hammerhead shark, whale shark, and tuna.  It also provides habitat for the critically endangered leatherback turtle.  Sharks and other large fish are concentrated in the area near Cocos Island partly because the cluster of now-protected seamounts provides habitat for the smaller fish they feed on. 

The Marine Seamounts Management Area is bigger than Yellowstone National Park in the United States, and is the second largest protected area in the eastern tropical region of the Pacific Ocean.  If protections for the area can be successfully implemented by the Costa Rican government, it could serve as a model for other countries looking to protect their own marine resources.

Photo credit: Barry Peters

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