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Blue Sparks Light up the Eastern Tropical Pacific at COP26

Featured Image: Parque Nacional Isla del Coco. Photo credit: Avi Klapfer

This week and next week, the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (“COP26”) brings negotiators from nearly every nation together in Glasgow, Scotland, to discuss the future of climate change. Tensions are high— hundreds of climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, gather in protest outside the convention center, protesting a lack of progress and limited access to the COP events; and leaders have yet to come any closer to a specific deal regarding emissions cuts, though negotiators are making strides in other areas such as global carbon trading.

Of course, at the heart of any discussion about climate mediation, should be the ocean. This week at COP26, Panama, Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica made history by announcing the creation of the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR) initiative—an expansion of protections that will bridge marine protected areas (MPAs) across national boundaries, creating a “mega MPA” that would protect one of the world’s richest and most biodiverse regions—and could become, if designed and managed effectively, the planet’s largest interconnected network of Blue Parks.

Parque Nacional Isla del Coco. Photo credit: Avi Klapfer

The commitments by these four Latin American nations aim to protect the Eastern Tropical Pacific (ETP), an area that hosts incredible biomass and is stitched together across international borders by long underwater ridges (seamounts) that serve as vital—and vulnerable—migration corridors for endangered turtle, ray and shark species (learn more here). Currently, the ETP is home to a dazzling collection of Blue Parks: protected ocean areas that meet scientifically rigorous standards for true and lasting biodiversity protection. Three Blue Parks form a constellation of conservation successes in the Eastern Tropical Pacific: Colombia’s Malpelo Sanctuary, with powerful ocean currents that attract enormous shark aggregations; Cocos Island National Park, home to almost half the endemism in Costa Rica; and the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which accounts for the world’s largest biomass of reef fish, the majority of which is sharks. These Blue Parks are home to stunning marine life, but many of the iconic animals  are highly migratory and travel between these areas making them vulnerable to industrial fisheries. In recent years, a colossal Chinese fishing fleet has gathered just outside the Galápagos—waiting to for animals to cross the invisible boundary into unprotected water. This looming threat has roused international attention to the need for a more radical conservation vision to safeguard threatened species in the region.

That’s where the COP26 CMAR initiative comes into play. The proposed MPA would both join and increase the size of the four nations’ protected territorial waters to create a fishing-free corridor covering more than 200,000 sq miles of what biologist Dr. Alex Hearn calls “one of the last bastions of what ocean biodiversity would look like in a pristine world.” The commitment on the part of these Latin American leaders brings important global attention to Marine Conservation Institute’s Blue Sparks initiative—where our team of scientists, alongside incredible partners like Only One, is supporting expanded protections in the waters adjacent to existing Blue Parks. The Blue Park award celebrates exemplary conservation efforts and incentivizes other marine protected areas to meet the Blue Park standard for effective conservation. But what about marine protected areas that are still evolving, or working toward formal designation? Blue Sparks partnerships bridge this gap. Our scientists collaborate with local ocean champions to ensure that new marine protected areas are on track to be the strongest they can be. We bring our resources, advocacy, and blueprints for conservation success to each Blue Spark project, helping to accelerate their progress toward accruing true and lasting benefits for biodiversity.

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In the Eastern Tropical Pacific, securing expanded protections around the existing Galapagos Marine Reserve is a Blue Spark, as is the Cocos-Galapagos Swimway, which connects the vital migration corridor between Cocos Island and the Galapagos. With the right resources—and the right follow-through from these Eastern Tropical Pacific nations’ leaders—these Blue Sparks might someday become Blue Parks, with strong management plans and quantitative benefits to biodiversity, climate, and economies.

Imagine a connective, multinational protected ocean sanctuary, 200,000 square miles in size, setting the new global standard for what cooperative conservation agreements can look like between nations. Imagine—as the COP26 negotiators are gathered now to do—the extraordinary climate resilience of a place like this, or of a whole planet studded with similar ocean places like this, safeguarding vast Blue Carbon habitats and providing natural laboratories for resilience and adaptation in a changing ocean.

This is more than lip-service—it is an actionable commitment. As Ecuadorian president Guillermo Lasso said, “this is a concrete action on behalf of Ecuador that goes beyond . . . words.” The commitment marks a new era of ocean conservation to provide protection to species which move between and beyond borders.

If this commitment can, indeed, be followed by action and rigorous implementation, a connected network of Blue Parks in this region could be a torch held high for the world to see and to emulate. As global leaders continue to build momentum toward protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, these Eastern Tropical Pacific Blue Parks and Blue Sparks shine a light on what marine conservation can—and must—look like in the years ahead, if we are to heal this blue planet before it’s too late.

COP26 is, of course, an extraordinary stage for an announcement like this—after all, global climate conversations like the ongoing conference in Glasgow must address the ocean if we are to make successful plans that can re-set the earth’s disrupted balance. But, Hearn says, while “this is a moment to relish .. . .there’s a lot of work which needs to be done.” Now our job is to make sure the actors, so to speak, are still working from the right script when they step off the COP26 stage. Learn more about the Blue Sparks initiative and how you can support these proposed protected areas in becoming the strongest and most successful ocean reserves possible.

Expanded Protections for Galápagos, Ecuador. Photo credit: Santiago Moran