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Bridging Blue Parks

A new vision for multinational marine reserves could change the face of ocean protection forever

In the Eastern Tropical Pacific’s swirling currents, endangered leatherback turtles cruise along undersea ridges and muscular hammerhead sharks travel between islands the way that traffic moves between cities. For 23 million years, seafloor spreading has given birth to complex underwater topography that funnels rich currents up from the deep sea. Here, some of the most vulnerable and extraordinary marine animals converge to feed and to mate: enormous blue whales, ancient turtles, ponderous whale sharks with starry-patterned bodies. 

Isolated areas within the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape are protected, including Panama’s Coiba Island and the Galápagos in Ecuador. However, research is beginning to reveal the highly migratory nature of many of the endangered species that make these islands home. And in recent years, the colossal Chinese fishing fleet that has gathered just beyond the boundaries of the Galápagos Marine Reserve—waiting to scoop up the sharks and other animals that cross the invisible boundary into unprotected water—has brought international attention to the fact that a different kind of conservation vision is necessary if these threatened species are going to survive the supersized fishing pressures of the 21st century. Now, a research expedition and an ambitious campaign targeting multiple coastal countries within the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape could bring new science—and new political clout—to a revolutionary vision for protecting entire swimways across international borders. 

Currently, a 134-foot repurposed Japanese fishing ship is plying the waters between two Blue Parks: Costa Rica’s Cocos Island National Park and Ecuador’s Galápagos Marine Reserve. Across nearly 1600 nautical miles, the research vessel Sharkwater is tagging endangered sharks and turtles, pulling DNA samples from the water, capturing extraordinary underwater videos, and conducting biodiversity counts throughout the rich ocean currents and scattered seamounts that connect the two nations. Although this expedition—run by MigraMar and other partners of Marine Conservation Institute—specifically aims to bolster scientific justification to protect the Cocos-Galapagos swimway, the expedition also paves the way for a bigger project: expanded protections throughout the entire Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape. 

Image Courtesy of Only One.

This is a bold vision, but a vital one if many of the endangered animals that travel the rich migration corridors in this area are to come back from the brink of extinction. Currently, Only One—a Marine Conservation Institute partner and a collaborator with ocean initiatives around the world—is calling on the governments of Ecuador, Costa Rica, Colombia, and Panama to establish the world’s first multinational network of marine protected areas. The campaign pushes for better protection from industrial fishing — both foregin and local — in all four nations and for better closing of the “gaps” between existing island reserves. Only One writes:

In the Galápagos Islands alone, foreign industrial fishing vessels logged a mind-boggling 73,000 hours of fishing in just one month. Meanwhile, 136 fishing vessels from Ecuador’s own industrial fleet, one of the biggest in Latin America, entered the Galápagos Marine Reserve, where fishing is not permitted. Meanwhile, Panama and Costa Rica are among the world’s top exporters of shark meat. This is troubling given that global shark and ray populations have experienced a severe drop of more than 70 percent in the past 50 years. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Colombia is a wonderful example of progress and commitment to the protection of the ocean—in 2020, Colombia banned shark fishing in its entirety. 

With an eye toward positive solutions and policy-level change, The Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape campaign pushes local governments to hold true to past promises, to expand no-take zones beyond existing MPAs, and to work together to imagine cooperative marine conservation beyond national borders. 

Most of the existing parks in this proposed area are Blue Parks—exemplary marine protected areas that are managed according to the best science and that meet the highest standards for real and lasting conservation. From Colombia’s Malpelo Sanctuary—with its strong currents and enormous shark aggregations—to  Cocos Island National Park—home to almost half the endemism in Costa Rica—to the Galapagos Marine Reserve—which accounts for the world’s largest biomass of reef fish, the majority of which is sharks—the Eastern Tropical Pacific is home to isolated, well-protected patches of stunning marine life. The Only One campaign seeks to connect the dots between these Blue Parks, expanding the patches into a strong and colorful quilt of biodiversity. 

Image courtesy of Only One.

Blue Parks have always been models for what marine conservation can and should look like on a broader scale. The Only One campaign in the Eastern Tropical Pacific might similarly serve as a model for the future of ocean protection. As international momentum builds toward protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, the world will look toward examples like this, of nations coming together to protect migratory pathways and complex ecosystems that spill beyond boundaries. Perhaps someday the expanded protections in Colombia, Ecuador, Panama and Costa Rica will become the world’s first multinational, cross-jurisdictional Blue Park! 

As MigraMar approaches the end of their expedition, the story is still evolving– a story of craggy underwater bathymetry, a story of tracking rare species across international boundaries, a story of constellations of Blue Parks connected by living animals and their movements. Help us write the next chapter! 

 Learn more about Only One’s campaign here, and sign the petition today to help save the “jewel of the Pacific.”