San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Protecting Tico Oceans Would Be Great Legacy

You might think it unlikely that George W. Bush could school Oscar Arias about the environment and things green. You would be wrong. Believe it or not, the recently-turned-former U.S. head of state, considered by many to rank among the worst U.S. presidents in history, found a way to leave a positive environmental legacy that makes him a champion of green – or, in this case, a champion of blue.

In 2006, Bush created one of the world’s largest marine reserves, the PapahanaumokuakeaMarineNational Monument, encompassing 362,000 square kilometers of Pacific Ocean in the Hawaiian Islands. But that protected area will be dwarfed by the recently announced creation of new protected areas around U.S. territories in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, due west of Costa Rica, including parts of the deep Mariana Trench and a string of reefs and atolls near the equator and American Samoa, altogether encompassing more than 500,000 square km. The area, upstream from Costa Rica on the massive river known as the Pacific Equatorial Countercurrent, now has a better chance of continuing to seed Costa Rica’s Pacific coast with corals, fish and other marine life.

Only recreational activities such as sportfishing and diving will be allowed – no commercial fishing or oil exploration for these areas that hold more than 7,000 known and many more unknown species, and some of the healthiest surface waters and coral reefs in the world.

With the stroke of a pen, Bush protected a piece of ocean bigger than all the national parks of the United States put together, and about 10 times larger than the land surface of Costa Rica. The Pew Environmental Group called it the single largest marine conservation act in history.

Many of the new protected areas will extend more than 90 km offshore of the islands. The vast majority of what’s protected are pelagic and benthic – ocean surface and bottom, respectively – ecosystems, which represent some of the most unprotected biospheres on Earth. The pelagic ecosystem is the most productive and largest biosphere on the planet, while the benthic ocean bottoms are known to often contain deep-water coral reefs as spectacular as those of shallow seas, full of species unknown to science.

Most countries have permitted these amazing ecosystems to be razed to mud and sand – by shrimp trawlers, for example – before anyone even knows what’s there, what it’s worth or what use these unique creations of evolution may have for future generations.

The United States has now ensured that, somewhere in the world, these ecosystems are protected.

Costa Rica will hopefully do the same. President Arias has already written of an interest to create new protected ocean areas in The Tico Times (TT, Oct. 3, 2008). Hopefully, Bush’s example will be followed and the thinking will be big. New marine protected areas bigger than all of Costa Rica’s existing conservation areas would be an immortal environmental legacy.

On the Pacific side, a 90-km-wide corridor of the deep Cocos Ridge, starting with southwestern Costa Rica’s Corcovado National Park, north to Ballena National Marine Park and running offshore to 90 or more km around Isla del Coco – Costa Rica’s legendary “Treasure Island,” almost 600 km west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas – and then linking this to protected Ecuadoran waters, would be a start. Protecting the ocean from the Ostional National Wildlife Refuge to Santa Rosa National Park, including the Gulf of Papagayo, would be sure to please the large number of tourism investors in the northwestern Guanacaste province. Protecting 90 km around the Guardian Seamount, far  offshore of the NicoyaPeninsula, including the newly discovered area of warmwater geysers on the deep sea bottom, would save more of the country’s Pacific marine resources. And the Costa Rican Dome area – a blue whale nursery and the world’s most permanent upwelling, where nutrient-rich cold waters rise to the surface from the deep – also needs to be included.

On the other side of the country, a giant reserve from Cahuita to Bocas del Toro, Panama, and to 90 km offshore – like a binational La Amistad International Park of the ocean – might do the trick for saving a slice of the Caribbean’s marine life. Finally, a binational marine refuge with Nicaragua, offshore of TortugueroNational Park on the northern Caribbean coast, would make our ocean stewardship a shining blue example to our neighbors and the world.

A tax on commercial fishing, petroleum exploration, ocean mining and bioprospecting in areas outside the new zones could generate funds to monitor the protected areas with technology such as satellites and robot buoys.

If a similar act made George W. Bush look good, imagine what it would do for the image and legacy of Costa Rica’s outgoing president.

The act of saving our seas would do much more for Ticos and the rest of the world than it would for the image of Oscar Arias. Costa Ricans deserve to have all our ecosystems protected. The country already sets an example to the world by protecting its most biodiverse ecosystems, the rain forests. Now, its most bioproductive life zone, the pelagic open ocean, needs help. The most unknown and mysterious area in Costa Rica, the deep sea bottom – what renowned ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle calls “the heart of the ocean” – needs help.

These priceless pieces of creation are being destroyed every day by commercial fishing. They cannot wait for gifts of money. Costa Rica should be able to stand side by side with the United States as a world leader in protecting marine ecosystems.

The time for a tsunami of ocean conservation is now.

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