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Largest protected area in North America

Huge congratulations to Mexican President Peña Nieto and Environment Minister Pacchiano who have designated a huge area of Mexico’s waters as a fully protected marine reserve.

I was really hoping to be there to join them for the announcement, but the President acted so quickly, that I couldn't make it on time. The presidential decree officially establishing the Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park protects 148,000 km2 of ocean – that’s nearly four times the size of Switzerland - and is now the largest marine protected area in North America.

It was barely two months ago, at the Our Ocean Conference in Malta that the Mexican government announced it planned to designate the Revillagigedo Archipelago as a fully protected national park – the strictest protected area category in the country. None of this work is ever done alone, so congratulations to all the local and international groups like CODEMAR, Beta Diversidad, the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, National Geographic Pristine Seas, Karen Sack and the team at Ocean Unite and my fellow Ocean Elder, the wonderful Sylvia Earle who have helped make sure that Mexico fulfilled its promise.

At a time when the health of the ocean is being battered by climate change impacts, overfishing and plastic and other pollution, Mexico’s leadership is more than welcome. They are following through on their commitment to the environment, taking actions that will not only benefit their country, but the entire world’s oceans.

The Islands of Revillagigedo – Socorro, Roca Partida, San Benedicto, and Clarión, are the stagnant peaks of extinct volcanoes. The islands may just be a rocky landscape with a smattering of seabirds and reptiles dotting them, but venture beneath the waves (as I really hope to do sometime soon), and you will witness the magic of one of the world’s most remarkable and plentiful marine ecosystems.

Divers from all over the world relish the chance to visit Revillagigedo to swim with one of the largest resident populations of oceanic manta rays.

These animals, which can have a wingspan up to seven meters, are known to swim right up next to you as they perform flips in the water feeding on the abundance of nutrients in the area.

Image from Getty Images

People also journey here to witness a mother humpback and her calf take a well-deserved rest as they prepare to make the long journey north; and Revillagigedo is also known for a group of animals I am particularly passionate about: sharks. Shark populations are declining at drastic rates due to the demand for their fins, but in Revillagigedo you will find whale sharks, white sharks, endangered hammerheads and 34 other species of sharks and rays. With Mexico’s leadership and the designation of the park, one of the country’s most biodiverse ecosystems is now completely protected – allowing these special animals a safe haven from the many dangers they face in the open ocean.

Marine parks are about more than just a safe haven for the species that live in them. The science is clear that not nearly enough of the ocean is protected - scientists recommend strongly protecting at least 30 per cent, and today we are at less than five per cent. These national parks at sea are critical climate change fighting tools and help support food security. The ocean is a massive carbon sink and science is now demonstrating that marine reserves slow the effects of climate change, rebuild biodiversity, and help build resilience. With the conclusion of the 23RD UN Climate Change Conference (COP23), governments should keep in mind that they, like Mexico, can affirm their international commitments to combating climate change through the creation of marine reserves - or climate reserves.

And because there are no borders (or walls) around marine parks, they help restock fish populations. Revillagigedo is an area where schools of yellowfin tuna aggregate or gather. As the populations recover, they spill-over out of the park into areas where they can be caught sustainably. By ensuring parts of the ocean are no-take, especially places like Revillagigedo with healthy tuna populations, Mexico is actually helping the fishing industry rather than harming it, and in the long run securing a food source which their people depend on.

Mexico’s announcement follows similar declarations by countries large and small, including: the US under President Obama, the United Kingdom, Chile, and Russia, to Palau, Fiji, Nauru and the Cook Islands. All have strongly protected large portions of the ocean over the last several years and they’ve also worked together to protect Antarctica’s Ross Sea. But we need more. Wouldn't it be wonderful if we could celebrate even more marine reserve designations from other North American countries in the next year?


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