By John Robinson
The first day of the IUCN 2014 World Parks Congress marked a significant win for the oceans.
The President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon announced the decision to create a new marine protected area network of ten marine parks covering more than 18,000 square miles (over 46,000 square kilometres). The network – encompassing about 23 percent of Gabon’s territorial waters and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) – will safeguard whales, sea turtles, and other marine species inhabiting the nation’s coastal and offshore ecosystems.
As the President noted in his speech, this puts Gabon “near the 20 to 30 percent that marine biologists tell us is needed to maintain biodiversity and restore depleted areas outside parks.” This is a massive increase from the 1 percent of marine area currently protected by Gabon.
President Ali Bongo Ondimba added that the new protected area will include a 27,000 square kilometer expansion of Mayumba National Park, extending out to the limit of the nation’s EEZ. The new marine protected area network complements an existing terrestrial protected area system anchored by 13 national parks created in 2002.
This news by Gabon means it will be the first Central African Nation to protect its marine resources with the establishment of a marine protected area network. It was a great way to start the IUCN World Parks Congress, which aims to show that protected areas are vital to securing Earth’s biodiversity.
The parks will protect more than 20 species of whales and dolphins (including humpback whales and Atlantic humpback dolphins) and four species of marine turtles (among them the world’s largest breeding leatherback turtle population and the Atlantic Ocean’s largest breeding olive ridley turtle population). More than 20 species of sharks and rays occur in Gabon’s waters, many of which are threatened, including great hammerhead sharks, manta rays, whale sharks, and tiger sharks.
Gabon is showing great leadership with this news. The marine protected area system will help protect the country’s marine wildlife, while taking significant steps to curtail unregulated and unsustainable fishing from the international fleets that exploit much of Africa’s coastal waters. Gabon’s President has assured the conservation of the globally important breeding populations of whales and turtles found here. This announcement also is guaranteeing the livelihoods of the people of the country – ensuring fisheries are sustained for future generations.
Key to this news is the science behind it. The new marine protected area system used data collected over two decades of work by WCS Gabon, Gabon’s Agence Nationale de Parcs Nationaux (ANPN) and the University of Exeter to identify priority areas for parks. This included a 3-week expedition mounted by WCS, ANPN, the Waitt Institute and the National Geographic Society to survey bottom habitats and collect data on the biodiversity and health of Gabon’s marine environment.
We take great pride in the fact that WCS conservationist Mike Fay, along with National Geographic’s Enric Sala, led the research team on these underwater surveys of previously undocumented reefs, sea floors, and lagoons. More than a decade before, Fay led another team of explorers on a terrestrial survey through an intact forest corridor stretching from Congo to coastal Gabon – an astounding 2,000-mile (3,200-kilometer) journey.
For the past 25 years, WCS has supported the Government of Gabon’s initiatives to create the country’s first national park system, designed to save the country’s magnificent tracts of intact forest and abundant wildlife. Today, President Ali Bongo Ondimba’s commitment to conservation remains strong. Africa is leading and Gabon is setting an example for the world.
John Robinson is Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science at the Wildlife Conservation Society and Vice President of the IUCN (Follow at: @wildcons).