Massive marine protected area created in Costa Rica

A new marine park covering one million hectares, offers a “beacon of hope for ocean health and human wellbeing”

A vast new marine protected area has been created around Cocos Island, south-west of the Costa Rican mainland. Extending across almost one million hectares, the Seamounts Marine Management Area will give vital protection to endangered marine species, such as hammerhead sharks and leatherback turtles, and will allow fish stocks a chance to recover from overfishing.

The declaration formalising the creation of the marine park was signed by the Costa Rican president, Laura Chinchilla Miranda on 3 March 2011 and will conserve an entire marine ecosystem, which includes a group of seamounts (underwater mountains).

The reserve will be five times as large as the existing National Park around Cocos Island, which is already a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a fully protected non-fishing zone.

Situated around 350 miles off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, Cocos Island is just 12 miles in circumference and the waters around it support more than 30 unique, marine species. It is often known as Shark Island because of the abundance of sharks in its waters, including white-tipped reef, whale and scalloped hammerhead sharks.

Conservation International, an NGO influencing global development towards a path that values nature, said the announcement is a beacon of hope for ocean health and human wellbeing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

Describing the decree as marking a day of national pride, the organisation’s Costa Rican marine program coordinator, Marco Quesada, said: “Creating a protected seamount area sets an important precedent. Seamounts host endemic species, and the deep water that upwells along their sides brings nutrients that support rich feeding grounds for sealife on the surface. Seamounts serve as stepping stones for long-distance, migratory species, including sharks, turtles, whales and tuna.”

The expanded protected area is designed to encourage the sustainable management of fisheries resources and in particular, protect the scalloped hammerhead shark and leatherback turtle. These two species, which concentrate and feed in the new area, are highly threatened and are regarded by Conservation International as “flagship” species for the Eastern Tropical Pacific region.

Marco praised the leadership of President Chinchilla and the country’s environmental ministers – as well as the co-operation between Conservation International and local partners and communities over the past six years – in helping make the decree a reality. “We have worked with a host of national research, conservation and fisheries organisations to determine the fairest and most environmentally responsible expansion scenarios,” he said.

Scott Henderson, regional marine conservation director for Conservation International added: “Costa Rica and its neighbours are enormously important centres of marine diversity and abundance that underpin valuable fisheries and tourism industries. Today’s announcement reconfirms Costa Rica’s role as a regional leader in green economic development.”