Dispatches from the Field: How long will the Eastern Tropical Pacific be brimming with life?

MEAM

By Tundi Agardy, Contributing Editor, MEAM. Email: tundiagardy [at] earthlink.net

It is hard to know where to look next – they are everywhere. Gazing down on a mosaic of sleeping reef sharks silhouetted against the white sand, you barely notice the dim but bulky form of a tiger shark slowly cruising past your right side. Then the big school of scalloped hammerheads coming at you from the left takes your breath away – what little breath you had, that is, after seeing the endemic marbled rays, the banded mantas, and even a majestic giant manta ray, all sweeping their great wings slowly past you just minutes before.

The ubiquitous predators cruising the waters of Cocos Island, 550 km off the coast of Costa Rica and smack dab in the middle of the Eastern Tropical Pacific invoke a sense, not of fear, but of wonder. How can so much biomass be packed into the top trophic layers? It brings to mind something that Chuck Birkeland, the beloved grandfather of coral reef biology, noted when we were together in Palmyra Atoll – the ‘original condition’ of coral reefs was really more like an inverted pyramid than the classic upright pyramid food web shape we all had been taught was correct. So many big sharks, groupers, tunas, and other top predators – it makes one wonder how they can sustain themselves…

But sustain themselves they do. The oceanic islands of this ecoregion – including Ecuador’s Galápagos Archipelago to the south, Cocos in Costa Rica, Colombia’s Malpelo and Gorgona, Coiba in Panama, and France’s Clipperton to the north – are all rich in marine life. But despite protected area status around most of these offshore islands, some are barely protected at all, and all this teeming life may be at risk.

Trouble in paradise

Cocos Island park rangers patrol as best they can; the five of them with their one boat spread their meager surveillance effort across 9000 square kilometers of wide open sea. Cocos is a well-known cornucopia of marine life, deserving of its status as a World Heritage Area and the Eastern Tropical Pacific’s second largest MPA. But illegal longline fishing is so pervasive that the park staff have had to build warehouses on the island to store the confiscated line and buoys. A hanging bridge crossing one of Cocos’ major rivers is constructed solely of the very same confiscated materials.

The government admits that it is only catching a small proportion of illegal fishers – although successful interdiction rates are expected to rise now that a new radar system has been installed (made possible through the support of Costa Rica por Siempre, one of the conservation funds described below). Moreover, without adequate reforms, even legal fishing is undermining the ecological health of these ecosystems. Costa Rica allows the use of wire leaders in tuna longline, which results in a high retention rate of sharks. Fishers claim this is bycatch, but it actually fuels the very lucrative shark fin trade. And in a shocking development last week, the Minister of Environment of Costa Rica signed a decree that allows INCOPESCA – Costa Rica’s widely criticized fisheries institution – to be the sole institution regulating shark fisheries and shark fin trade.

Then there are the other threats to the Eastern Tropical Pacific’s marine life. Coastal development and coastal fishing have endangered fish nursery areas, such as the shallow mangrove lagoons where hammerheads go to bear young. The ecological connections between oceanic islands, now thought to be critical links in the chain that sustains populations of highly migratory marine vertebrates such as hammerheads, Silkie sharks, Galapagos sharks, whale sharks, and even sea turtles, are imperiled by maritime activities like fishing and shipping. Insidious pollution generated from the Central and South American coasts may be altering offshore ecosystems, and severe warming from repeated El Nino events and climate change adds to the cumulative threats.

Hope for the Eastern Tropical Pacific

But there is reason for hope. Costa Rica por Siempre has joined forces with the conservation funds of neighboring countries that share this valuable marine region: Panama’s Fundación Natura, Colombia’s Fundo Patrimonial and Patrimonio Natural, and Ecuador’s Fondo Acción. Collectively known as PACÍFICO, this permanent platform serves to promote fundraising, financial sustainability, and cooperation for conservation and sustainable development in the region. This group has now embarked on plans to identify the region’s biggest management challenges and tailor solutions appropriate to the nature and scale of the problems.

True to the principles of ecosystem-based management (EBM), PACÍFICO acknowledges the connections between different parts of this vast and rich ecosystem. An initial initiative is working with MigraMar to define something known as the Cocos Swimway – a crucial shark and sea turtle corridor connecting Galapagos to Cocos. And even more ambitious collaborations are underway. Building on initial work done by The Nature Conservancy in the region, and acknowledging the advances made by the four fund countries and Mexico, PACÍFICO is in the process of developing a strategic conservation plan for the whole of the Eastern Tropical Pacific. The idea is to identify conservation priorities, not only around the oceanic islands and in offshore pelagic environments, but also in nearshore/coastal realms. The funds can align existing sustainable development projects so that they complement a geographic EBM approach. In addition, the funds are considering a region-wide ecosystem services assessment that will highlight the enormous values being generated from the marine environment and use the information to stimulate public-private partnerships and private sector investments.

I was thankful for the privilege of accompanying Costa Rica por Siempre leaders (Zdenka Pikulich, Pamela Castillo, and Carlos Chacon, coordinator of PACÍFICO) and representatives from the other countries’ funds, along with government officials and journalists, on this site visit to Cocos. The trip aimed to inspire us and motivate us to generate a common vision and path forward. And inspired we were.

CORRECTION: This article was corrected on June 13, 2017, to reflect that INCOPESCA has no jurisdiction within national parks. By  law, fishing is not allowed in national parks in Costa Rica.

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