Costa Rica has created a huge new marine protected area, comprising around 2 million acres. The new area is an addition to the Cocos Island National Park, increasing the park’s size five-fold. This place, one of the jewels of the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP), is a corridor used by huge populations of hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, loggerhead turtles, dolphins and other pelagics migrating along the ETP.
It took six years, for the Costa Rican government, NGOs, universities and other sectors working in partnership to create what is to date this Central American country’s largest marine protected area. This new marine park, called the Seamounts Marine Management Area, is larger than the Yellowstone National Park in the US and it’s the second biggest marine protected area after Ecuador’s Galápagos islands along the ETP.
These seamounts, located 35 miles south of Cocos Island, serve as stepping-stones for long distance migratory species and also form a marine corridor of key breeding and feeding waters for tuna and sharks.
A scientific expedition led by National Geographic along with local and international NGOs such as Fundación Amigos de la Isla del Coco, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International and Marviva, triggered the Government’s decision to create this new marine area.
The expedition revealed that the waters surrounding Cocos Island National Park are one of the hot spots in the ETP and contain large populations of highly endangered reef species such as sharks, tuna and groupers.
The other main conclusion of the expedition, which encouraged the government’s decision, reported purse seine fishing of tuna in the free-fishing waters of the Cocos Island. The expedition also found encroaching pressure outside the park from the fishing sector, so threatening the biodiversity of this World Heritage Site.
The role TNC played creating this new MPA was crucial. Throughout the 6-year process TNC contributed with assessments of Costa Rica’s ecorregional marine and conservation gaps. This scientific analysis helped identify the seamounts of Cocos Island as a priority conservation area. TNC also developed, in partnership with other organizations, the technical arguments to justify the government’s decision.
The public consultation process with different local sectors – fisheries, tourism, academic, government and community, amongst others– to reach general consensus was also a very important aspect of TNC’s role. On the other hand, TNC’s accreditation before the Regional Council of Cocos Island Conservation Area to vote in favour of creating the new MPA, was crucial to counteract the opposition coming from the fishery sector.
The announcement made by President Laura Chinchilla is a huge leap forward for the Costa Rican government regarding its marine conservation goals under the 1993 UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Even as Costa Rica has set aside a quarter of its land –26%– for conservation, it has protected only 1% of its oceans.
This is a historical step forward and the Costa Rican government deserves praise, however the future of this new MPA depends on an accurate management plan implementation and partners’ support. Plus, the challenge regarding new MPA areas is big, from now on, the focus would be on coastal zones where the interests and conflicts with the fishery and community sectors may arise and put at risk conservation efforts, explained Fabián Sánchez, marine expert at TNC.
This new MPA and its considerable extension is critical for marine biodiversity conservation along the Eastern Tropical Pacific. Its creation sets a precedent and becomes a model to replicate in the region. Yet, the creation of MPAs that are functional and resilient to climate change is the biggest task governments have to undertake now, added Fabián Sánchez.
Costa Rica is close to being the first developing country in the world to meet its conservation goals under the CBD. Nonetheless, there is still a lot of work to reach this point, especially when it comes to its marine areas.