The best way to ensure the health of our oceans is to protect marine species and their habitats. But that’s challenging, because ocean species—especially migratory ones such as whales, sharks, and sea turtles—navigate an onslaught of fishing hooks, nets, and plastic pollution during annual migrations of hundreds and even thousands of miles. On this complex highway, areas where migratory species can safely gather to rest, feed, and breed, such as fully protected marine reserves, become critical to their survival.
Nearly 500 miles west of the Mexican mainland and 250 miles south of the Baja Peninsula sits a chain of four volcanic islands—the Revillagigedo Archipelago—at the convergence of two ocean currents and across two tectonic plates. The combination of the currents and the archipelago’s system of seamounts creates perfect conditions for upwellings that bring nutrients from the ocean floor to the surface and support a rich array of life.
The abundant nutrients and the shelter provided by the islands make the archipelago a critical stop on the migration routes of whales, sea turtles, and sharks. Each year, humpback whales leave the cold waters of British Columbia and Alaska and travel thousands of miles to winter in Revillagigedo. Green sea turtles migrate from Southern California to lay their eggs, with nests that can number up to 500. And among the 37 species of sharks and rays that live at least part of the year in Revillagigedo are the endangered hammerhead shark, the iconic great white shark, and the whale shark, which draw tourists from all over the world. Scientists have just discovered that shark species visiting Revillagigedo also travel to the Gulf of California in Mexico and perhaps even to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador or Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Safeguarding critical waypoints such as Revillagigedo can strengthen the populations of these apex predators across the Pacific.
Fortunately, protecting this unique ecosystem—a UNESCO World Heritage site that is home to unspoiled reefs, massive schools of sharks, huge gatherings of manta rays, and hundreds of species of fish (including 26 species found nowhere else in the world)—is a priority for the Mexican government.
At both the Our Ocean Conference in Malta in October and the International Marine Protected Area Congress hosted by Chile in September, Mexican government representatives shared their country’s commitment to preserving the natural wealth of these islands by creating a nearly 60,000-square-mile (150,000-square-kilometer) fully protected marine reserve. Mexico’s largest marine protected area would safeguard not only an epicenter of biodiversity but also an important hub of biological connectivity across the Pacific.
If Mexico fulfills its commitment, it will join a group of nations as large as the United States and as small as Palau that have stood up to establish fully protected and well-enforced marine reserves, which have been scientifically shown to strengthen the health and resilience of the ocean. More governments must now follow the example that Mexico is setting; countries that act will protect the species and habitats in their waters and provide benefits that reach far beyond their borders.
Randall Arauz is a marine biologist, founder of PRETOMA, and Pew marine fellow.
Matt Rand is director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.
This article was previously published by EFE.