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Costa Rica protects huge marine area at Cocos Island

Hammerhead sharks, leatherback turtles to be protected under new fishing rules

Costa Rica's Cocos Island boasts more sharks per cubic yard of water than perhaps any other place on the planet, including whitetip reef sharks, 40-foot whale sharks, and hammerheads that school by the hundreds. Now these and other apex predators and flagship species, crucial to healthy ocean ecosystems, can swim a little easier - thanks to new protective measures by Costa Rica. © Conservation International/ photo by Sterling Zumbrunn

Endangered Leatherback turtles will benefit from a new protected area around Costa Rica's Cocos Island. © Conservation International. Jason Bradley photo/bradleyphotographic.com.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A newly designated marine reserve around Costa Rica’s Cocos Island will help protect endangered species like hammerhead sharks and leatherback turtles. New rules will also help recover fish stocks that are important to local communities, according to Conservation International, a nonprofit group that worked with the Costa Rican government to establish the management area.

The new conservation rules will likely forbid fishing altogether in some zones, and limit it to sustainable levels in the rest of the area.

The Seamounts Marine Management Area encompasses a UNESCO World Heritage Site and covers about 2.45 million acres — bigger than Yellowstone National Park. Only Galapagos National Park protects a larger area in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla Miranda created the new area with a March 3 executive decree to improve management of this unique oceanic island, conserve an entire marine ecosystem, and protect a group of seamounts (underwater mountains) southwest of Cocos Island.

Located 550 km. (342 miles) off the coast of Costa Rica in the Pacific Ocean, Cocos Island is just 20 km (12 miles) in circumference, and is often dubbed “Shark Island” for the abundance of sharks that live in its waters, including white tipped reef sharks, whale sharks, and scalloped hammerhead sharks.  The waters around Cocos also support more than 30 unique, marine endemic species, which represents more than 40 percent of the country’s known total.

“Creating a protected seamount area sets an important precedent,” said Marco Quesada, Conservation International’s marine program coordinator for Costa Rica. “Sea mounts host endemic species, and the deep water that upwells along their sides brings nutrients that support rich feeding grounds for sea life on the surface. Seamounts serve as stepping stones for long-distance, migratory species, including sharks, turtles, whales and tuna. So we applaud the vision of the Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla Miranda, as well as the minister and vice minister of environment in making this historic move.“

The expanded protected area, which is likely to include both fully protected and low impact fishing zones, will encourage the sustainable management of fisheries resources and protect the scalloped hammerhead shark and the leatherback turtle, two threatened species that concentrate and feed in the new area, and two key ‘flagship’ species for the eastern tropical Pacific.

Leatherback turtles are listed as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. The Costa Rican population has declined by 40 percent in the last 8 years, and 90 percent in the past 20 years, due in part to the loss of eggs to illegal harvest in nesting sites.  Scalloped hammerhead sharks are on the globally endangered species list, and are often targeted by fishermen for their fins, which attract high prices primarily for the Chinese market. Both scalloped hammerhead sharks and leatherback turtles are accidentally captured in commercial fishing operations.

“This new protected area gives us a better chance to ensure that these species will thrive for future generations to marvel at for many decades to come”, said Dr. Bryan Wallace, Conservation International’s Marine Flagship Species Program Director.

The area around Cocos Island has been recognized as a core site within Conservation International’s Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape program since 2005. The organization worked with local partners for the past six years, to help make this decree a reality. In that time, CI’s local team supported Costa Rica in developing national shark and turtle strategies and the creation of new management categories including Marine Reserves and Responsible Fishing Areas, directly involving local communities in management.

“This has been a long journey,” Quesada said. “We have worked with a host of national research, conservation and fisheries organizations to determine the fairest and most environmentally responsible expansion scenarios.  None of this would have been possible  without the invaluable scientific and management contributions of the Cocos National Park Administration, the University of Costa Rica’s Center for Marine Investigations, Pretoma, Marviva, Forever Costa Rica and, above all, the leadership of President Chinchilla, and her ministers.” said Quesada.

Scott Henderson, Regional Marine Conservation Director for Conservation International said, “Protecting threatened marine life and ensuring thriving fisheries is what our Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape Program is all about. Costa Rica and its neighbors are enormously important centers of marine diversity and abundance that underpin valuable fisheries and tourism industries. Today’s announcement reconfirms Costa Rica’s role as a regional leader in green economic development – extending this approach from its land to its oceans. Tomorrow’s fisheries will show that the expansion of Cocos benefits fishermen, too.”

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