San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Biologist Advises Government on Oceans

Georgina Bustamante has worked for over 30 years as a marine biologist and marine conservation consultant. She has authored books and papers on marine conservation in Latin America and the Caribbean and worked with the United Nations Environment Program to help establish marine protected areas.

Born and educated in Cuba, Bustamante now lives in the United States, where she is coordinator of the Caribbean Marine Protected Areas Management Network and Forum in Hollywood, Florida.

Just over two weeks ago, Costa Rica established rules for creating two types of protected marine areas.

Bustamante is in Costa Rica this week to offer her advice and speak with government officials about signing the final protocol of the Cartagena Convention.

The Tico Times had a question and answer session with Bustamante on Wednesday:

TT: There are a lot of classifications and categories for marine protected areas. Will you define what a marine protected area is in laymen’s terms?

GB: A marine protected area is just an area with some user restrictions in order to make the resources more biologically viable and sustainable. It’s protected because you manage the uses. It doesn’t mean that you are going to close it to all uses, but it means that, within a legal framework, you are able to develop a management plan and make sure that the uses do not jeopardize the viability of the ecosystems. It’s a way to ensure that the environmental services that an area generates will be there for a long time.

You mentioned some of the uses of the area. Can you give examples of which uses are restricted and which are permitted?

They depend on the area, but there is a list of common restrictions. The uses that are restricted are number one, fisheries. The fishery industry has increased a lot over the last 50 years. What is happening is that the traditional fisheries management tools are not effective anymore. So fisheries are declining all over the world and some of them have collapsed in many areas. These traditional management tools are not really helping, so people are exploring other ways to manage the areas. These new tools target the space instead of the species.

The second is tourism. There are more and more people going to coastal areas to have fun on vacation. Coastal tourism is very attractive, but it has to be done responsibly. For example, reefs are not properly managed.

When tourists go diving, they step on reefs and anchor in the reefs. These are threats to the reefs.

Coastal construction is another. These developments can damage the coastal areas in many ways. Marinas (often) alter the flows of canals and clear and destroy mangrove areas, which wipes out the small fish so you are destroying an essential habitat for a population.

What are some of the construction regulations that would have to be implemented? Well, it depends on how far the deterioration has gone. In some areas it has gone so far that you have to stop all the uses and let the area rest. Sometimes it’s necessary to stop all the uses. That’s why, when scientists, governments or NGO’s are designing a protected area, they have to take into account several things. First, the habitats and what kinds of habitats they are.

Secondly, the marine resources – what kinds of fisheries or resources are there in the area, which are used by the community and the community uses them for both locals and outsiders. If you have a tourist resort or a fishery that attracts outsiders, those are stakeholders and you have to take them into account.

The most important thing is to have the participation of the people in the community to make sure that they accept it, are allies of the management and are willing to participate in the design and management of the area.

Statistics on the United Nations Web site indicate that there are millions of hectares of protected land reserves, but only about 400 thousand hectares of protected marine areas. Why are marine protected areas so outnumbered?

I think that’s exactly the issue. Everything is happening below this surface. It’s like a mirror and you generally don’t know what is happening inside. The cultural vision of the population doesn’t include the sea.

People think it’s another world and not part of theirs. In Costa Rica there is big difference between land and marine conservation.

Here, marine conservation is very far behind. Costa Rica is full of national parks and that’s what people think about in this country when they think about conservation. For a long time people have believed that the marine resources are endless and inexhaustible, but that’s not the case. Something has to be done. We have to regulate the sea the same way we regulate the land if we don’t want to wipe out its resources in a few years.

Should fisherman be restricted from fishing inside these marine protected areas?

In areas where there has been a lot of depletion, yes. You have to have resting areas. It’s like a banking account. You need a place to put reserves. Fish outside of the area so the fish in the protected areas, or no take areas, have time to rest, reproduce and recuperate. When the population increases after a few years within the area, then there is a spill over.

Do you think governments are starting to put more energy into protecting marine areas?

Well, the fact that Costa Rica (has marine reserves and protected areas) shows that they recognize something has to be done. The country needs a little framework to manage the use of certain areas. As I understand, in Costa Rica there are several uses of certain areas where there needs to be some protection.

When I say protection, it doesn’t mean close them to all uses, which, as I understand in Costa Rica, is the way national parks are defined – to close them to all uses, but tourism. But these new categories … allow for a management scheme to regulate the uses.

This is good – it’s a change of mentality. Secondly, there is at last a possibility in the country to increase the protection of the seas and do something with over-fishing, which is a problem here.

You’ve worked with the United Nations to help create marine protected areas. Arethere any common threads you find with governments when establishing these areas?

These programs I work with are a result of the Cartagena Convention. The governments signed this convention with the commitment of protecting the sea. The United Nation Environment Program started the process of making the countries sign this convention and three protocols were developed – to regulate the oil spills, to help the countries to reduce the threat of land-based pollution and to establish the Specially Protected Area and Wildlife (SPAW) which aims at developing cooperation among the countries to increase effectiveness and the area that is under this protection.

There is a lot of funding from the governments that signed the protocol in the region and from foundations. Costa Rica has been a beneficiary of that, but it won’t be anymore because Costa Rica hasn’t signed the SPAW protocol.

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