Marine Reserves of the Americas

The Galapagos National Park is perhaps the most famous marine reserve in South America and was established in 1959. It was Ecuador’s first national park and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Galapagos Islands are in fact an archipelago made up of 13 main volcanic islands, 6 smaller islands, and 107 rocks and islets lying approximately 600 miles off the west coast of Ecuador. As a marine reserve it has legal protection against fishing or development and helps sustain the many species of plant and animal that inhabit its area as well as help protect marine habitats including coral reefs, cold ocean currents and mangrove swamps. The waters around the Galapagos Islands are home to over 3000 different plant and animal species and on the islands the world famous giant tortoises rule the scrubland.

The case for having marine reserves according to the WAITT Institute is to increase the number of fish and the size of fish within the reserve, which in turn increases the catch size outside of the reserve, to increase the growth of coral, to increase biodiversity and to increase revenue to local economies through sustainable tourism.

With such obvious benefits, it was with much applause that we welcomed the news today, 25 November 2017, that the Mexican government has created a large marine reserve around the volcanic Revillagigedo Archipelago off Mexico’s south-west coast. In July 2016, the Revillagigedo Archipelago were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With a protection zone of 57,000 square miles (150,000km), it has become the largest ocean reserve in North America.
Sometimes referred to as Mexico’s “little Galapagos”, they are recognized as a distinct terrestrial ecoregion. Socorro Island is the most diverse in flora, fauna, and topography. The Mexican Government established the islands as a Biosphere Reserve on June 4, 1994 but with the formal decree signed by Mexico’s President, the reserve will secure its much-needed protected status.

Why was this important?

Firstly, it safeguards a chain of four volcanic islands in the Pacific and their surrounding marine habitats, some 800 kilometers west of Manzanillo and almost 400 kilometers south of Cabo San Lucas. The islands Socorro, Clarión, San Benedicto, and Roca Partida are all located where the cold waters of the California current converge with the warm waters of the North Equatorial current, creating upwellings that bring nutrients from the bottom of the ocean to the surface. These nutrients help feed 366 species of fish, 26 of which are endemic, meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world as well as 37 species of sharks and rays. And they make the region a critical waypoint for whales, dolphins, sharks, tunas, sea turtles, and other migratory species, as well as providing a winter home to humpback whales.

Matt Rand, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project has confirmed that ‘the reserve will protect marine life around the islands and the large migratory species that visit as they traverse the Pacific Ocean offering a safe haven and safeguarding marine life from the ocean surface to the ocean floor.’

Secondly, it was important as according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), a great portion of the original vegetation of the Revillagigedo Islands has been destroyed over the last 50 years and with feral cats contributing to the reduction of native bird populations including the extinction of the Socorro dove in the wild between 1958-1978.

Of the other several endemic species found on the islands these include a whip snake, a night snake, several lizards and numerous seabirds. Around the islands, manta rays and whale sharks are common and humpback whales use the shallow and coastal areas for breeding.

According to the WWF, the islands also constitute one of the most important nesting, breeding, and foraging sites for four sea turtle species that are in need of special protection: leatherback turtle, olive ridley turtle, hawksbill turtle and the green turtle. Its isolation from the continent makes Revillagigedo Islands one of the few ecosystems that have unique species of flora and fauna worldwide (Jiménez et al. 1994).

Where else have we seen positive government change and intervention with reference to marine reserves?

Back in October 2015, Chile announced that it will create two new marine conservation parks in its Pacific waters. One will include the Easter Islands, 3,800 km (2,360 miles) off Chile’s coast, and a second park will be created around the Juan Fernandez archipelago to help rebuild depleted fish stocks. Together they will cover more than a million sq km where commercial fishing will be banned.

All of these measures are part of a global movement to fully protect 30 % of our oceans, as recommended by scientists and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature; which will ensure a healthy and sustainable ocean for generations to come.

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