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Corridor project links unique island worlds

Protecting a large, complex and threatened marine environment is a task you can't take on alone. A recent initiative to safeguard 520 million acres in the eastern Pacific has engaged countries from two continents, the United Nations and specialists in species ranging from the leatherback turtle to the flightless cormorant.

Four nations--Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Costa Rica--are supporting the initiative, which strengthens conservation around the Galapagos Islands and four other unique and biologically diverse island clusters. Backing them are CI and over 15 leading conservation and research groups. This broad-based coalition is utilizing CI's terrestrial conservation corridor approach--which links large protected areas by employing a mosaic of low-impact land uses--and is applying it to a marine environment.

"Using CI's corridor strategy as a starting point, we have developed a common vision to protect one of the most unique and biologically important assemblages of marine and terrestrial life on Earth," explains CI Vice President Roberto Roca.

The project brings together the islands of the Galapagos, Gorgona, Malpelo, Cocos and Coiba and the coastal waters of the four nations in a single conservation plan. These islands, and the waters that connect them, shelter thousands of species found nowhere else, as well as threatened and commercially important marine and terrestrial life. They also are the sites of five island national parks and two World Heritage Sites, an acknowledgement of their biological importance.

While remote, these islands are not biologically isolated. Five major ocean currents--including cold water from Antarctica that attracts penguins to the equatorial region--and three tectonic plates converge in the area, creating a migratory path for everything from tiny marine organisms to threatened whale species.

"This is a living, breathing ecosystem interconnected through currents and geological formations at the bottom of the ocean," says Sylvia Earle, CI executive director for global marine conservation. "Whales, dolphins, penguins, sea lions and turtles, as well as several species of tuna, migrate throughout the region, as do large numbers of fish and bird species."

Without an integrated strategy among the four countries, effective conservation has been difficult. In recent years, illegal and unregulated fishing and poorly managed tourism have damaged key habitats and ecosystems, such as coral reefs and wetlands, and depleted species populations. Moreover, increased human populations, pollution and non-native organisms have devastated fragile terrestrial and marine species.

The project aims to address these threats on several fronts. Central is the use of the latest technology to study marine life. CI is partnering with Stanford University and several other institutions in a program that uses electronic tags to track marine species that live in the open waters of the east Pacific. These efforts will help to identify migratory corridors, spawning sites and additional areas in need of protection.

Also key are education and enforcement. This work includes collaboration with the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission to provide training for tuna fleets from all four countries to reduce bycatch. The partnership includes support of improved monitoring and control of shark finning, an illegal practice that slaughters millions of sharks every year.

CI, the United Nations and country partners are also looking to raise the international profile of the region by creating new World Heritage Sites. Already CI's Global Conservation Fund and other project supporters have made preliminary investments in the conservation of Panama's Coiba Island, part of a long-term initiative to turn the island into a World Heritage Site.

"We believe this corridor project can become a global model for marine ecosystem management and international collaboration," says Roca. "If we can demonstrate success in the eastern tropical Pacific, a biologically important area where fisheries and tourism play a critical role, then we may enable nations to realize that collaboration among countries is required for a healthy marine environment and effective resource management.


© CI, Sterling Zumbrunn
Flightless cormorant, one of the bird species found only in the Galapagos Islands.

© CI, Sterling Zumbrunn
The Pacific creolefish, found in the waters surrounding the Galapagos Islands.

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