An ocean

Carlos Manuel Rodriguez
describes a pioneering international bid to conserve one of the world’s most important stretches of sea

Out on the eastern edge of the tropical Pacific, in the vast triangle of ocean bounded by the coasts of Central and South America, lies one of the most valuable, and vulnerable, areas on Earth. Here great movements of water – the Humboldt Current, the Equatorial Current, the Panama Current, the Costa Rica Coastal Current, the Cromwell Current and the Panama Bight Gyre – converge and mix. They cause the upwelling of the nutrients from the deep ocean, providing food for many species. And they disperse the larvae of fish, corals, crustaceans, molluscs and echinoderms, and affect migrations, resulting in a wide ecological interconnection throughout the region.

Beneath the waves vast underwater mountains and ridges rear up from the seabed, creating rich habitats, home to many endemic species. Above them jut some of the most biodiversity-blessed islands in the world, such as Cocos Island and the Galapagos. And through the waters move rare and endangered migratory species, such as blue and humpback whales, loggerhead and leatherback turtles.

The Galapagos Islands are world famous, but not that exceptional in these remarkable seas. Some 336 species of fish have been recorded around Colombia’s Gorgona Island alone. My country’s Cocos Island has 18 coral, 57 crustacean, 250 fish and 510 mollusc species. Our Las Baulas National Park is one of the leatherback turtle’s last nesting grounds on the American Pacific, while humpback whales breed and calve around the islands of this extraordinary stretch of ocean.

Unique initiative
Now an initiative as unique as the area itself is bidding to conserve it. Four governments – those of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Ecuador – have joined with over 50 partners, including leading conservation and research groups, to launch the first ever attempt to pursue integrated ecosystem management across multiple international political jurisdictions. The Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape (ETPS) initiative, which is partially funded by the United Nations Foundation, is part of a broader $15 million agreement between the Foundation, the Global Conservation Fund at Conservation International (CI) (with funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre to conserve current and proposed Natural World Heritage Sites.
Although the oceans cover 70 per cent of the globe, less than 1 per cent of them lie in any kind of protected area
Conservation at sea lags far behind that on land. Out of the 754 sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List there are only about 20 with any significant marine components and fewer than ten of them have been inscribed purely for their marine values. Although the oceans cover 70 per cent of the globe, less than 1 per cent of them lie in any kind of protected area. ETPS aims to establish a functional marine conservation corridor by creating a network of marine protected areas across the 211 million hectare expanse of sea that falls inside our four countries’ exclusive economic zones. It also sets out to improve the management and protection of the existing World Heritage Sites of Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica’s Cocos Island, and secure the designation for Panama’s Coiba National Park and Colombia’s Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary.

Collaborative vision
Planning for the development of ETPS began in 2000 when Ecuador approached CI, UNEP and IUCN-The World Conservation Union to consider ways of protecting the area. It was launched two years later, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg by a panel convened by the three organizations, and consisting of the Presidents of Costa Rica and Ecuador, the Vice-President of Panama and the Vice Minister of Environment of Colombia. It has the support of the presidents of all four countries and their environment ministers.

The initiative will develop a shared ecosystem approach that respects the sovereignty of each of the four governments through agreements between them. Its work represents a unique collaborative vision for sharing the management of resources. And it can provide a model for transboundary management for marine and World Heritage Sites worldwide

Carlos Manuel Rodríguez is Minister of Environment and Energy, Costa Rica.

PHOTOGRAPH: Edmund P. Green

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Töpfer | Into the mainstream | Creation’s forgotten days | Restoring a pearl | Stop my nation vanishing | Energy release | Oceans need mountains | People | An ocean corridor | At a glance: Seas, oceans and small islands | Profile: Cesaria Evora | No island is an island | Small islands, big potential | Small is vulnerable | Natural resilience | Books and products | Keeping oil from troubled waters | Redressing the balance | Neighbours without borders | Will Mother Nature wait? | Pacific canaries

Complementary articles in other issues:
Issue on Oceans, 1998
Issue on Small Islands, 1999
Issue on Biological Diversity, 2000
Issue on World Summit on Sustainable Development, 2002
Issue on World Heritage and Protected Areas, 2003

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment: