Costa Rica’s pristine “shark island” is now a huge marine reserve

The first time he dived in the waters around Cocos Island, Enric Sala felt like he was in an “underwater Jurassic Park”.

“I vividly remember diving under a school of 200 hammerhead sharks, inside a school of thousands of bigeye trevally, and [being] surrounded by 20 mating green turtles, ”said National Geographic explorer-in-residence in an email.

The crystal clear waters harboring this vibrant life, reminiscent of prehistoric times, now receive more protection to keep them pristine. Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica, a protected marine reserve since 1982, will grow 27 times. It will be contained in a new sustainably managed marine reserve called the Bicentennial Marine Management Zone, promulgated by Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado Quesada on Friday.

In total, the declarations will protect 61,502 square miles of ocean (159,290 square kilometers). It is three times the size of mainland Costa Rica.

The announcement means that Costa Rica, known to be ambitious in its environmental goals, now protects 30 percent of its oceans, down from just 3 percent before today’s announcement.

Earlier this year, 50 countries said they would protect 30% of their land and 30% of their oceans by 2030. Separately, the Biden administration pledged to work towards a similar goal. Scientists say this “30 out of 30” target is necessary to mitigate climate change and prevent rapid loss of biodiversity.

Today, less than 8% of the world’s oceans are in some form of legal protection, and Sala says more is needed “if we are to prevent an extinction crisis and the collapse of our survival system.” .

An ecological gold mine

At the heart of Costa Rica’s newly expanded reserve is “Isla de Coco”, also known as Treasure Island (and believed to have inspired the 1883 book). It is distant more than 350 miles from the coast and uninhabited, although in the 17th century it was visited by pirates who allegedly hid a notoriously plundered booty known as the “Treasure of Lima” which may be worth today. $ 1 billion. He was never found.

With its tropical rainforests and green, jagged mountains, some say the island inspired the setting of jurassic park.

As the southernmost extension of North America, the island sits at the bottom of a current known as the North Equatorial Counterflow, which lies at the oceanic confluence of mating, migration and of food. The nine square mile island is just the visible tip of a line of submerged volcanoes that tower over the ocean floor and are home to an explosion of marine life. At least three species of birds, two fish and two reptiles are not found anywhere else on Earth.

This is in addition to the more than 200 different plants and fish, 400 insects, 100 birds and whales, dolphins and sea lions that find refuge in the park.

It is particularly rich in sharks, home to 14 different species, three of which are endangered.

“It’s called Shark Island,” explains Carlos Manuel Uribe, president of Friends of Cocos Island, an environmental group created by former Costa Rican President Rodrigo Carazo Odio in 1994. “La first time I jumped into the water, I saw myself surrounded by sharks. There is such biodiversity all over you.

Animals and plants of all sizes nestle within its coral reefs and caves; Cocos Island has one of the densest biomass in the tropical world, a scientific term for living organisms.

While the area has been legally protected by Costa Rica for 39 years and has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, a 2009 survey by environmental advocacy group National Geographic Pristine Seas, led by Sala , revealed that the species inhabiting the region were threatened. by nearby fishing boats.

A subsequent National Geographic documentary was produced on the region’s biodiversity and fishing threats, and was dubbed Cocos Shark Island.

The team discovered that the unprotected seamounts circling the island were littered with fishing lines. The region’s waters are teeming with lucrative tuna, its sharks are targeted by poachers, and a 2018 report by a local environmental group found illegal fishing to be a significant and growing threat.

New protections will send a message that Costa Rica is serious about safeguarding its biological assets, said Andrea Meza, Costa Rica’s Minister of the Environment.

“It is very important to make it clear to illegal fishermen that there will be more control and surveillance of the ocean,” she said. “For this reason, the expansion was very important because we can increase control and oversight. ”

While the larger Bicentennial Management Area will have managed fisheries – details of which are under development – fishing in the smaller Cocos Island park will be banned. Globally, just under 3% of the oceans are strictly protected by bans on fishing or other “extractive” industries such as mining.

Good for the environment, good for people

At the United Nations climate conference in Glasgow in November, where world leaders met to negotiate policies to tackle climate change, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador agreed to protect 193,000 square miles (500,000 square kilometers) of the eastern tropical Pacific, the corner of the Pacific Ocean between North America and South America.

In addition to conserving habitats in local waters, the agreement aims to protect migratory routes followed by sharks, whales, stingrays and turtles. Colombia has already announced that it will expand its marine reserves, as has Ecuador, which is home to the famous Galapagos Islands.

While the announcements have been ambitious, Meza says more work will be needed to ensure that these marine reserves are more than just “paper parks,” parks where protections are not actually enforced.

“We have to be aware that what we are doing… is creating a park of paper,” explains Uribe. “Our next goal is to move from a paper park to a well-controlled and protected area. For that, we need funding and use up-to-date satellite surveillance to intercept illegal fishing. “

Uribe says the park will need a large endowment, likely from foreign donors. Meza roughly estimates that the government will need around $ 10 billion to $ 15 billion for the next five years alone.

But according to Meza, Costa Rica’s economic future lies in protecting its resources, and the new marine reserve is part of what she calls the country’s new blue economy. Studies of shark diving tourism in Florida and Palau estimate that over time a shark is worth more when alive, visible to divers, than dead, on a plate.

“When tourists come to Costa Rica, they want to see nature. With these protected areas we were able to develop different businesses, ”she says, noting that ecotourism encourages everything from diving trips to car rentals and traffic to restaurants.

Costa Rica has already reversed deforestation, is committed to achieving net zero emission status by 2050, and is now looking for ways to electrify vehicles and modernize buildings, all part of the vision of Meza for a new green economy.

She hopes to extend this to businesses operating around the new marine reserve, paying fishermen to operate sustainably, in the same way the country pays landowners to protect their forests.

“Conserving the oceans is good for business, good for the environment, it’s good for people,” she says. “Working for ocean conservation is an essential part of the climate agenda. ”

National Geographic Pristine Seas is a global program that combines exploration, research, strategic communications, education, political and economic work, and community engagement to help create world-class marine reserves and ensure their effective management . Pristine Seas helped inspire the creation of 26 marine reserves, totaling over 6.5 million square kilometers. Learn more at

About Matthew Berkey

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