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A Blue Park Becomes the Largest Fully Protected Marine Reserve in the North Atlantic

Featured Image: Giant anemone (Telmatactis cricoides) with white-striped cleaner shrimp (Lysmata grabhami). Photograph by Andy Mann, National Geographic Pristine Seas

Off the northwestern shores of Africa, Madeira’s Ilhas Selvagens—the Savage Islands—are rugged and remote, inhabited only by park rangers, nesting seabirds, and endemic geckos. Enormous ocean swells sweep past the skeletons of old shipwrecks, churning up nutrients from below and turning the surrounding waters into vital nursery grounds and stopovers for hungry migratory marine animals. For 50 years, the islands have been safeguarded as a marine protected area, one that earned a Blue Park Award in 2018 for its outstanding contribution to biodiversity conservation. This new year begins with a landmark declaration that officially expands the reserve from 95 to 2,677 square kilometers. This makes the Blue Park the largest fully protected marine reserve in Europe and the entire North Atlantic—a victory that sets a compelling conservation example for other nations to follow.

In this extended reserve—which encompasses a radius of 12 nautical miles around the Selvagens Islands—all species are now fully protected against all extractive activities including, fishing and mining. This decision is supported by scientific and legal studies and by data collected in scientific expeditions carried out in recent years. The expansion of the reserve by the Regional Government strengthens Madeira’s commitment to the protection what is the most pristine ecosystem in the Northeast Atlantic.

Selvagens Islands, Portugal, At Sea September 2015 (also known as Savage Islands) Little was known about the Selvagens’ undersea environment prior to the September 2016 Pristine Seas expedition, launched in partnership with the Waitt Foundation. But over the course of the ten-day expedition, the team found that the open waters around the islands appear to be a vital waypoint for migrating fish and mammals in the Atlantic and that intermediate depths and reefs may serve as important nursery habitat. Photograph by Andy Mann, National Geographic Pristine Seas

Miguel Albuquerque, President of the Regional Government of Madeira, points out that, “Madeira has been a world reference in terms of Nature Conservation policies.” He hopes that this designation will “serve as an inspiration for other decision-makers to take similar measures, towards the preservation of our oceans.”

Strengthening the protection of the Selvagens Islands will contribute to increasing the marine diversity, genetic richness, and reproductive capacity of the islands’ species, including many of commercial interest. It will also ensure the integrity of ecosystems contributing to better marine conservation throughout the entire Northeast Atlantic.

For José Soares dos Santos, President of the Oceano Azul Foundation, “the natural value of the biodiversity of the Selvagens Islands is extraordinary and irreplaceable. Based on scientific studies and the expeditions carried out, the decision by the Regional Government reinforces Madeira’s positioning in the conservation and valuation of the ocean.”

The global challenges of the climate emergency and species extinction crisis require exemplary actions at European and global levels. In a context where the ocean is one of the ecosystems most affected by climate change, and by overexploitation, this decision to expand the Selvagens reserve reinforces the commitment of Portugal at the 2017 United Nations Conference of the Oceans, to considerably increase its marine protected areas, and dovetails with the growing global push to protect 30% of the ocean by 2030.

This Blue Park, and others like it, exemplify the standard for conservation effectiveness that Marine Conservation Institute is working to uphold for marine protected areas around the world. Learn more about what it means for a marine protected area to be “fully protected”—and visualize the current state of ocean conservation around the world—at