Gabon has once again made headlines for a bold conservation initiative.
On Wednesday in Sydney, Australia, at the opening of the once-a-decade IUCN World Parks Congress, the Central African nation announced it would create a network of new marine protected areas amounting to 23 percent of its territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The 18,000 square mile (46,000 sq km) area includes a range of ecosystems and bars commercial fishing, according to Gabonese president Ali Bongo Ondimba.
“Today I can announce our decision to create a network of marine parks covering about 23% of Gabon’s territorial waters and EEZ, within which no commercial fishing will be allowed,” said the president. “This will include a 27,000 square kilometer extension of Mayumba National Park, extending out to the limit of our EEZ. The remainder of the EEZ will be divided into community and commercial fishing zones and oil exclusion zones, where industrial fishing is not allowed close to strategic infrastructure.”
According to the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs conservation projects in the country, the new network protects habitats that support than 20 species of whales and dolphins, four species of sea turtles, and more than 20 species of sharks and rays occur.
“Gabon’s President has assured the conservation of the globally important breeding populations of whales and turtles found here,” said Hugo Rainey, an advisor with WCS Gabon. “By announcing the creation of community fishing zones Gabon’s President is also guaranteeing the livelihoods of the people of the country too.”
John Robinson, Wildlife Conservation Society Executive Vice President for Conservation and Science and IUCN Vice President, added that the move set a positive tone to open the congress.
“Gabon will become the first Central African Nation to protect its marine resources with the establishment of a marine protected area network,” said Robinson. “This announcement by President Ali Bongo Ondimba is a great way to start the IUCN World Parks Congress which aims to show that protected areas are vital to securing Earth’s biodiversity.”
Gabon’s move comes nine years after set aside ten percent of its land mass in protected areas. Today that commitment has grown to 13 percent.
Wednesday’s announcement followed extensive surveys of Gabon’s underwater ecosystems led by National Geographic’s Enric Sala and famed WCS conservationist Mike Fay who led a 3,200 kilometer “Megatransect” across the Congo basin in 1999. The effort included several partners, according to WCS.
“Creators of the new marine protected area system used data collected over two decades of work by WCS Gabon, Gabon’s Agence Nationale de Parcs Nationaux (ANPN) and the University of Exeter to identify priority areas for parks,” the conservation group said in a statement. “This includes a 3-week expedition mounted by WCS, ANPN, the Waitt Institute and the National Geographic Society to survey bottom habitats and collect data on the biodiversity and health of Gabon’s marine environment.”