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This 3-year project by UNESCO World Heritage Centre and Conservation International, and with financing from the UN Foundation and Global Conservation Fund, calls for the promotion of long-term management and conservation of five marine protected areas within the Eastern Tropical Pacific through using the World Heritage Convention and other international and national legal instruments.
The project will support the World Heritage nomination process for sites not yet listed, possibly using serial and/or transboundary nomination strategies.
It will also promote regional collaboration on key marine conservation issues in view of contributing to the integrity of the marine World Heritage sites and their surrounding waters in the Eastern Tropical Pacific as well as promote increased application of relevant international conventions and environmental laws through capacity building.
World Heritage Centre and Conservation International collaborate with several national partner organisations to undertake the activities at the site level. The activities at sites focus on strengthening management through capacity building and providing technical assistance for protection measures as well as shared learning and networking among sites.
The region has three World Heritage sites currently listed: Galapagos Islands and Marine Reserve (Ecuador), Cocos Island (Costa Rica) and Coiba National Park (Panama). The Colombian Islands Malpelo and Gorgona are being evaluated for World Heritage status with decision expected in July 2006.
The Governments of the region have already taken important steps to promote regional collaboration, especially with the "San José Declaration", signed in April 2004 by representatives of the Costa Rican, Panamanian, Colombian and Ecuadorian governments. The declaration formally establishes the Marine Conservation Corridor of the Eastern Tropical Pacific between the islands of Cocos, Galapagos, Malpelo and Coiba as an effective instrument for the conservation and sustainable use of the biological diversity of the Eastern Tropical Pacific region, based on the interests and priorities of the participating countries.
The reasons for approaching this conservation and sustainable development challenge as a region, involving four countries, are two-fold.
The first is the reality of ecological inter-dependence. The inter-connectedness of the marine ecosystem makes it near impossible for one country to maintain a healthy, thriving marine ecosystem, whilst neighbouring Exclusive Economic Zones are degraded. This is most obvious in the case of wide-ranging species, such as sea turtles, sharks, cetaceans, tuna, billfish etc which constitute some of the key values of these existing and potential World Heritage sites of the region. However, long-distance dispersal of larvae means that there may be many more levels of inter-dependence than these obvious ones involving large animals. Furthermore, the interaction between El Niño and human impacts mean that partial deterioration of the ecosystem may lead to a cascade of impacts, expanding both geographically and in the number of species affected. In short, national environmental security depends on collaboration with neighbouring countries. It is important to stress from the outset that recognizing ecological inter-dependence and therefore cooperating with neighbouring countries does not in any way affect national sovereignty.
The second reason for a regional approach is that the countries face common problems, can see joint opportunities and have complementary experiences and skills to share.
The Panama Bight, the islands and the waters surrounding them in the east central Pacific of Ecuador, Colombia, Panamá and Costa Rica are one of the most productive areas of the Eastern tropical Pacific and belong to one of the world's most biological diverse geographical provinces.
This area has a high degree of ecological interconnection and complex oceanographic characteristics, mainly due to the convergence of major marine currents, which facilitate the dispersal of marine larvae (e.g., from corals, crustaceans, molluscs, fishes) and affect the migrations, movements and distribution of many species of regional and global significance.
The seascape harbours unique and vulnerable habitats that support a rich biological diversity, including species which are endemic, in danger of extinction and/or have ecological, economic and aesthetic importance. Some of the more prominent large animals are endangered: great whales and sea turtles, tuna, sharks, rays, billfishes and sea birds. In addition, the islands of this region have some of the few coral reefs in the Eastern tropical Pacific.
Across the seascape there are a number of common, major threats to the marine ecosystem:
- Over-fishing, especially of sharks; this reflects the massive worldwide problem of over-fishing.
- By-catch of sea turtles, sharks, rays, seabirds, cetaceans etc.
- Illegal fishing (protected species, fishing out of season, ignoring size restrictions etc).
- Pollution (oil spills, noise pollution, land-based pollution of coastal waters etc); maritime transport and tourism contribute to the pollution problem.
The challenge is therefore to overcome these obstacles to good management of the Seascape, so that the ecosystem can support sustainable economic use and maintain its rich biodiversity and high productivity.