08 Jun 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Latin American and Caribbean countries champion marine conservation


Several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are protecting millions of square kilometers of seas in some of the world’s most biodiverse zones.

Marine protected areas are one of the best tools to safeguard the health of our oceans and stop overfishing, pollution and acidification. They bring ecological benefits, but also great economic gains. Studies show, for example, how a a single hammerhead shark sighted in the Isla del Coco, in Costa Rica, generates up to $1.6 million during its life thanks through eco-tourism.

There are more than 15,300 marine protected areas on the planet, covering an area of ​​26.3 million square kilometers, equivalent to 7.2 per cent of the total ocean surface, according to the Protected Planet report.

The so-called Aichi Target 11, set by the Convention on Biological Diversity, recommends the protection of at least 10 per cent of marine and coastal areas by 2020. Brazil, Mexico, Chile and Colombia have already surpassed this target.

Brazil was lagging behind, but last March made a major announcement. The country decided to protect almost 1 million square kilometers around the archipelagos of São Pedro and São Paulo, in the central Atlantic, and the submarine volcanic chain that connects the islands Trinidad and Martin Vaz, further south.  The designation increased the Brazilian marine protected areas from the current 1.5 per cent to 24.5 per cent.

Due to their isolation, these archipelagos hold an extraordinary biodiversity, with a high concentration of endemic and endangered species, such as the hawksbill turtle, the green turtle and the whale shark.

Mexico has also taken bold steps. Since 2016, it has tripled the sea surface under some type of protection and currently preserves 69 million hectares, which is equivalent to 22 per cent of all its waters. The last great addition was the archipelago of Revillagigedo, a marine sanctuary of 148,000 square kilometers in the Pacific, habitat of giant manta rays, humpback whales, killer whales and countless other unique species.

Mexico's Archipiélago de Revillagigedo (Wikimedia)

“It is the first marine area in our country where extraction of any natural resource, including fishing, is absolutely forbidden. Our objective is to build a corridor between Revillagigedo and the Galapagos islands because many of the species in these archipelagos are migratory and use these waters to reproduce,” explains the Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico, Rafael Pacchiano Alamán.

The ban on fishing has caused some reluctance within the tuna industry. Pacchiano Alamán considers, however, that the measure will benefit the sector, which had been affected by the decline in the population of tunas and the size of the specimens captured: “It has been necessary to increase the number of boats by 22 per cent to catch the same tonnes of tuna. If we want the seas to remain a source of food security and economic and tourist development, we need to have more areas where it is guaranteed that species can recover,” he adds.

Marine protected areas act as “fish banks”, since they allow highly exploited species to reproduce calmly, and are a guarantee for food security. Currently, Latin America and the Caribbean is the source of 24 per cent of global fisheries.

“Healthy and productive seas produces a lot of wealth for humans. On the contrary, sick and overexploited seas only harm the economy. Marine conservation is very important for the development of coastal communities and it is directly associated with sustainable tourism,” says the Minister of the Environment of Chile, Marcela Cubillos.

Currently 13.4 per cent of Chile’s seas are under some form of protection, but this figure will soon rise to 42 per cent once the decrees that created the new protected areas of Rapa Nui, Juan Fernández and Cabo Esperanza, approved at the end of the previous government, are ratified.

“Chile sees the protection of its ecosystems and its marine biodiversity as a State policy,” explains Cubillos, who considers that education and awareness of society are essential to achieve successful conservation: “It is important that we are capable of communicating to the Chilean people the huge benefits of protected areas.”

Colombia also surpassed the Aichi target. The Minister of Environment, Luis Gilberto Murillo, indicates that today 13.7 per cent of the marine surface and 99 per cent of the coral reefs of the country are under some type of protection: “The Cabo Manglares Bajo Mira y Frontera area has it was the last one to be declared a protected area, which will allow us to conserve a unique ecosystem, full of mangroves and turtle nesting beaches.”

The great challenge that the countries of the region face is to check that the restrictions stipulated in the marine protected areas are effectively met.

Most of these areas are jointly managed by several institutions, including the Navy. Mexico is going to build two surveillance stations in Isla Socorro and Isla Clarión and will provide the Navy with unmanned aircraft to control the entire territory: "If we did not have such a scheme, the protection of this area would remain unfortunately on paper and in good intentions,” says Pacchiano Alamán, the minister.

The oceans provide us with food, regulate our climate, produce most of the oxygen we need, and absorb a third of the carbon dioxide we generate. Preventing plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean is the theme of World Oceans Day 2018.

Learn more about our work in Latin America and the Caribbean.