San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Shark Island’ Showcases Isla del Coco Treasures

Shark Island, a new National Geographic documentary that debuted this week in Costa Rica, highlights some critical holes in international marine conservation.

The film is the final product of a three-week expedition around Costa Rica’s treasured Isla del Coco – a national park 365 miles off the Pacific coast – which took place in September 2009.

While scientists and filmmakers who participated in the project marveled at the abundance of marine life within the parks boundaries, they stressed the importance of extending conservation efforts to protect the future of the island’s riches.

“Isla del Coco is the only place in the world where you can see, in only one dive, such a incredible array of sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and rays,” said Enric Sala, National Geographic’s chief researcher for the film, at the documentary’s premiere in Escazú. “If the government expands the protection farther than the current boundary of the national park, it could protect underwater mountains, such as Las Gemelas, and could ensure a safe trip for migratory species.”

The documentary is a journey through an underwater paradise, largely untouched by humans, where yellow fin tuna swim alongside sharks and among florescent corals where eels and manta rays subsist in an undisturbed submarine sanctuary.

During 384 dives, scientists studied 115 species of fish and determined that the largest biomass of fish in the Americas and one of the biggest in the world lives in the waters surrounding the island. An average of seven tons per hectare of fish, turtles and rays live in the waters. Predatory species, such as sharks, account for 40 percent of the area’s biomass.

Sala called the environment one of “the healthiest ecosystems” he has ever seen.

But outside the park’s almost 2,000 square kilometers of protected waters, animals are subject to sometimes reckless dangers from the human hand.

The unprotected waters around the park are home to the Las Gemelas submarine mountains, an area that has been largely unexplored compared to the national park. There – and in other open Pacific waters – scientists found a ton of fish per hectare, or one-seventh of the amount of fish in the park.

It is here and in similar unprotected ecosystems that turtles, sharks, dolphins and other marine species are incidentally or illegally caught in fishing lines every year. Near Las Gemelas, the National Geographic team found miles of fishing lines and small numbers of predatory species.

The team attributed the shortage of marine life near Las Gemelas to a lack of protection and an over-extraction of resources.

Sala’s group caught on film a marine turtle struggling to free itself from a fishing line near the Isla del Coco National Park. Shortly after filming the incident, Sala, in his online  blog, wrote, “We have witnessed, firsthand, what is killing the oceans. It was like waking up from the most wonderful dream to the crudest reality.”

According to the film, dozens of marine turtles and hundreds of other sea animals die in the vicinity of the island every year because of similar circumstances.

The Isla del Coco is the apex of a Pacific marine biodiversity triangle that includes the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, and the MalpeloIsland, under the jurisdiction of Colombia.

While the three areas are all in protected status and human activity within the parks is limited and fishing restricted, the waters between the islands, like those surrounding Las Gemelas, remain open to all other activities. Because various marine species, including sharks and sea turtles, migrate among these islands, many animals find themselves directly in harms way and trapped in often-deadly fishing equipment.

Randall Arauz, director of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), said his organization has worked with other international non-governmental marine groups for years, conducting studies in these seawater corridors to determine where and when certain species migrate.

According to PRETOMA, leatherback sea turtles move in large numbers from the Galapagos Islands to Isla del Coco between the months of January and April. New studies are also bringing to light the migration habits of hammerhead sharks amongst the three islands.

Arauz and other international non-governmental organizations have recommended seasonal closures of this Eastern Tropical Pacific corridor to allow species to migrate safely. But this requires cooperation from the governments of Ecuador and Colombia. Arauz said such cooperation has been hard to come by, mainly because of pressure from the tuna industry.

Costa Rican President-elect Laura Chinchilla, who spoke at the film’s debut this week, said she is committed to working with other governments to ensure the protection of this triangle. She also said that projects are in the works to bring better vigilance systems and improved protection to the Isla del Coco.

Sala closed his remarks by saying that “it was our job to show you this wonder and the threats that it faces. Now you all can make your decisions about what its future is.”

The new documentary is part of National Geographic’s Ocean Now series, an effort to visit and film the last remaining healthy marine ecosystems on the planet. SharkIsland will begin broadcasting in the United States on April 1 on National Geographic’s new Geo Wild channel. After its debut in the U.S, it will be shown on televisions in 400 million homes around the world.


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