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Costa Rica Expands Marine Protected Area Around Cocos Island

Costa Rica has created a huge new marine park that increases five-fold the area of protected waters surrounding Cocos Island--home to some of the highest abundances of sharks and other large ocean predators recorded anywhere. A loophole that permits long-line fishing in some of the newly protected waters, however, may threaten the park's sharks, tuna, turtles, and other species.

Sharks and other fish crowd the water just off Cocos Island.

By Enric Sala, National Geographic Fellow Costa Rica has just announced the creation of a large new marine protected area (MPA) around Cocos Island National Park. This new MPA--called the Seamounts Marine Management Area--encompasses a group of deep seamounts located 35 miles south of Cocos, plus other important waters for shark and tuna nearby. Announcement of the new MPA came after more than a year of discussions between the Costa Rican government and conservation organizations, including National Geographic. An expedition by the Geographic and local NGO partners in 2009 revealed that Cocos Island National Park has some of the highest abundances of large ocean predators (such as sharks) found anywhere in the world. The expedition team also concluded that illegal fishing inside the park and encroaching fishing pressure outside the park are threatening the biodiversity of this World Heritage Site.

A whale shark dwarfs a diver near Cocos Island.

National Geographic and its Cocos expedition partners--Costa Rica Forever, Marviva, Pretoma, The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, Fundación de Amigos de la Isla del Coco--recommended the creation of a no-take marine reserve covering 25,000 square kilometers around Cocos Island National Park. The purpose was to protect key aggregation areas for sharks and tuna, as well as the Las Gemelas seamounts. These seamounts have been fished with lines but not trawled, and therefore have a relatively intact and pristine habitat. The government of Costa Rica instead created a 9,640-square-kilometer MPA that excludes purse seining for tuna, but will allow long-lining for tuna in some of its waters. This is great news for marine conservation, and a good first step for Costa Rica to fill its gaps in ocean protection. I believe this will not be sufficient to accomplish the goal of protecting Cocos' extraordinary undersea communities, however, because long-line fishing--which already accounts for the largest amount of illegal fishing at Cocos--will be allowed in much of the new MPA. The protection of the seamounts south of Cocos Island, by contrast, is a very important step in preserving a sensitive habitat that previously had no protection at all in Costa Rica. View photos from the 2009 Cocos Island expedition. Learn more about the 2009 Cocos Island expedition and find more ocean resources from National Geographic. Photos by Octavio Aburto

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