Costa Rica establishes vast new marine park - Seamounts Marine Management Area

Ray at Isla del Coco
Ray at Isla del Coco

The government of Costa Rica recently established the Seamounts Marine Management Area, a vast protected park centered around the remote Cocos Island off the country's Pacific coast.

Cocos Island

Cocos Island, which lies 342 miles away from the Costa Rican mainland, had previously been designated as a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The attraction is sometimes referred to as "Shark Island" thanks to its large and diverse population of the carnivorous fish, which include white-tipped reef sharks, whale sharks and scalloped hammerhead sharks.

Thanks to an order signed (in 2012) by Costa Rican president Laura Chinchilla Miranda, however, the national park was renamed the Seamounts Marine Management Area ("Área Marina de Manejo Montes Submarinos" in Spanish) and nearly quintupled in size. The reserve is now larger than Yellowstone National Park, one of the biggest parks of its kind in the United States.

Seamounts Mountains

The new marine reserve has been hailed as a great step toward protecting the more than 30 endemic species that live around Cocos Island. Costa Rica's seamounts - mountains rising from the ocean floor that do not break the surface of the water - are an important habitat for many different kinds of animals, as their steep sides channel nutrient-rich water from deeper areas into shallower seas. This creates rich feeding grounds for many different native species and makes the seamounts a critical stopover for migrating species as well, including sharks, turtles, whales and tuna.

Protecting Marine Life

The establishment of Seamounts Marine Management Area will be especially helpful for the prospects of the several vulnerable animals that live within the park's boundaries. The population of the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle - a species that often swims in the waters of the reserve - has dropped by approximately 90 percent in the past 20 years, and the new park will give these creatures a place to live free of the pressures of commercial fishing.

"Protecting threatened marine life and ensuring thriving fisheries is what our Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape Program is all about," said Scott Henderson, the regional marine conservation director for Conservation International. "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."

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