World Oceans Day–Costa Rica’s Perspective

June 8, 2011 is World Oceans Day—a time to reflect on what we’re doing to protect the planet’s leading oxygen producer, food producer, climate regulator, and source of everlasting inspiration (that last one’s a personal label I hang on it).  So, let me concentrate on just a few facts and happenings here in Costa Rica.

Costa Rica’s land mass is 51,100 square kilometers or 31,800 square miles, a mere pebble along the rocky shore of the Americas.  But what’s often overlooked is its massive marine territory or exclusive economic zone – EEZ, an area 11.5 times larger than its terrestrial size. 

Costa Rica's EEZ in dark blue (picture: FAO)

An EEZ is a sea zone over which a state has special rights over the exploration and use of marine resources therein.  Given the United Stares’ EEZ is the largest in the world but only the same size as the country itself, proportionally speaking Costa Rica has one of the largest marine territories in the world.     

But Costa Rica’s marine protection policy runs a distant second to its terrestrial decision making.  Because of this, 25% of the country’s land mass is in some way protected through its extensive national park system, while less than 1% of its marine territory has been set aside for conservation and/or sustainable use efforts.  

Ever the natural resource conservation leader (at least on paper), Costa Rica set a goal during the IV World Park Congress of a governmentally established network of Marine Protected Areas by 2012 that would cover 10% of its EEZ.  For many years the country struggled with this ambitions undertaking.  Political red tape pitted the Environmental Ministry against the Fisheries Institute, developed plans to decrease the sizes of existing MPAs, and designed foreign relations policies that gave the international fishing fleet seemingly free reign over the country’s marine resources.  But last month President Laura Chinchilla’s administration took a large step forward towards the 10% goal when it created the Cocos Island Marine Seamounts Managed Area. 

The new Seamounts Managed Area (grey) surrounding the Cocos Island MPA (green)

The new protected area raises Costa Rica’s total from .79% to 2.42%.  More importantly, it looks to find a balance between extraction and conservation as it protects marine life existing around the seamounts where deep coral formations and aggregation sites (resting, reproduction, cleaning, feeding) are found for highly migratory pelagic species like whales, sea turtles, rays, billfish (marlin and sail fish), and sharks. 

Because the country struggles to patrol/protect the previously establish MPA around Cocos Island (see map), concerns about how it will protect the Seamounts Area have been raised.  But before we go criticizing this initiative it’s important to remember that the resources were not available to actively protect the country’s extensive national park system when it was established back in the 70’s and 80’s.  Today, with a ¼ of the country protected, the park system is a world model for forest protection.  Costa Rica’s system of MPAs can be a similar success story if we want it to be.  It will need resources including foreign funds, political will, and fisher folk buy-in – all of which are possible if we put our minds and passions into it.  Happy World Oceans Day!
–Andy Bystrom


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