Protected Areas & The Challenges Facing The Natural World
We live in a very important time for the history of humanity and all living beings we share our home with. We have made such an impact on the Earth that many scientists now agree we have entered a new Geological epoch, the Anthropocene1. This means that for the rest of our planet’s history there will be traces in the fossil record of our time here.
We humans, directly and indirectly, have drastically and rapidly modified the natural rhythm of the planet's ecosystems. We have altered and covered more than two thirds2 of the surface of the Earth. When it comes to species lost and nearing extinction, the numbers are staggering.
How is it that man went from respecting and being in close contact with nature, to massively exploiting it? Industrialization, overuse of resources, especially fossil fuels, commercial fishing, factory farming, endless war, ecocide, and the prioritization of profit over the health of our planet and its inhabitants.
Today on social networks, we see hashtags that say things like #protectwhatyoulove and #savethewhales. These phrases are self explanatory; when we love something or someone, we take care of it/them. It is nothing short of absurd that we destroy and abuse nature when we depend on it for our survival.
But the situation is nuanced and complex. There are many possible outcomes to this story, at least a few of them are positive. In the best case scenario, our species will learn the hard lessons that now confront it. They are numerous; too many for the scope of this article. I will focus on one thing I am extremely passionate about, the importance of protected areas, national parks, and wildlife sanctuaries.
Today there are many cases of protected areas, both on land and in the ocean, that demonstrate how with application to match good intentions and effective implementation of laws, it is possible for badly degraded ecosystems to recover. In fact, the evidence is clear that effective protection of the areas most important to flora and fauna, brings benefits that can be seen outside the borders of such places. With this as a starting point, and from my own experiences working in marine protected areas in Mexico, I want to take you on a journey to some of the most astounding places in the Ocean.
The Revillagigedo Archipelago
We begin our journey with one of the world’s truly unique marine habitats. Because of its remoteness, this is a place that has always been abundant with life, but has only recently been recognized for this fact.
The Revillagigedo archipelago3 or Socorro Islands, as it is often called, is located approximately 400 km South-West of the Baja California peninsula. This diving paradise was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2016 and a Mexican National Park4 in 2017, thus becoming the largest national park in all of North America. This was considered by many to be long overdue, but more on that later.
The archipelago consists of three volcanic islands and a sea-mount. The largest is Socorro Island, where Mexico maintains a small military base and research station. The other islands are San Benedicto, a stunningly beautiful example of an intact volcano, and Clarion, the distant cousin located even further out to sea and seldom visited or dived. Roca Partida is a lonely seam-mount; literally a vertical rock face rising from the seafloor to about 25m/80ft above the surface.
White tip reef sharks at Roca Partida. Filmed by Ylinel Trujillo.
The islands fall into a broader ‘family’ of protected archipelagos in the Eastern Tropical Pacific that includes the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, Malpelo Island in Colombia, and the Cocos Islands in Costa Rica. It is important to note that the Revillagigedo National Park was only created in November 2017, while its peers were recognized similarly decades ago - the Galapagos in 19595, Cocos in 19786, and Malpelo in 19577.
Besides a rich diversity of flora and fauna, these islands are a vital refuge for many endangered species and play an important role in maintaining the health of surrounding waters. In fact, the park was only established after detailed scientific studies were presented to the government and the private sector (big fishing) showing that protecting the vital nursing, breeding, and feeding areas around the islands would boost productivity of valuable species such as yellowfin tuna in the waters outside the park.
Trip Report from the Revillagigedo islands filmed, edited, and narrated by Ylinel Trujillo.
Reaching Revillagigedo means breathing fresh air and disconnecting from the concrete jungle. Enter an underwater world of crystalline blue waters. Out here in the open ocean, the islands are a refuge to large pelagic creatures such as the giant Pacific manta, bottlenose dolphins, and false orcas. They are also home to a wide array of sharks including scalloped hammerheads, whale sharks, Galapagos, silver tip, silky, white tip reef, and oceanic black tip. During the winter months, with luck, one can even encounter Humpback whales on scuba (although this hasn’t happened for a number of years since a group of orcas killed a humpback whale calf at Roca Partida).
This is all before you discuss the fish. Stunning amounts of yellow fin tuna, wahoo, multiple species of jacks that form massive schools, the endemic clarion angelfish that cleans both mantas and dolphins, and many more! The cherry on the cake is that in Revillagigedo, you get more than just amazing sightings, you get interactions. Here, the giant mantas are known for swimming just feet above divers to, we assume, enjoy the feeling of their bubbles. This happens repeatedly, and sometimes all dive every dive at certain sites. The bottlenose dolphins also frequently approach divers to play and sometimes spend almost an entire dive swimming circles around them.
Clarion angelfish cleaning mantas at the dive site, Cabo Pearce.
Revillagigedo is truly a magical place that deserved to be protected a long time ago. Today, it is part of a group of places that demonstrate what science, conservation, and ecotourism can achieve when used in tandem. We can take an important lesson from the story of the park as well. That goodwill alone is often not enough to ensure the survival of species and habitats. We would be wise to factor that in when considering our own future.
Selfie video blowing bubbles on a giant Pacific manta. Filmed by Ylinel Trujillo.
Another place in Mexico that can teach us about the value of conservation is Cabo Pulmo, a relatively small area on the Southeast side of the Baja Peninsula in the Sea of Cortez. Here, you will find a small town on the edge of the furthest North Coral reef in the Eastern Pacific. These waters are extremely productive and host a wide range of marine species. These include a number of sharks, with a highlight being the bull sharks, turtles, large groupers, massive spiralling schools of bigeye jacks, and much more!
School of bigeye jacks at Cabo Pulmo. Video by Brendon Cammell/Found at Sea.
But it almost was not so. Cabo Pulmo was once an extremely degraded habitat with fish stocks on the verge of collapse. The local community, people who have relied on fishing for generations, began working with conservationists and government to have the area protected. They realized, as many now are, that business as usual could not continue. Since being declared a National Park in 1995, and designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 20058, Cabo Pulmo has experienced a biomass growth of over 400%9. Proof that nature is resilient and can bounce back if given the time and space.
The area has literally become a textbook case of what is possible. Besides a thriving ecosystem that protects biodiversity and increases bio-mass in surrounding waters, the communities in the town of Cabo Pulmo are thriving. There are strict rules limiting the amount of dive operators, limits to the amount of divers or snorkelers that can visit a site each month, and training for guides to ensure they enforce the park rules with visitors.
These kinds of win-win situations are the holy grail of conservation and ecotourism. Finding ways to repeat this success in other places where conditions are different is one of the great challenges facing conservationists, scientists, the private sector, and governments. How they meet that challenge will go a long way towards determining the fate of countless unique species and habitats.
Protecting places where life flourishes, and re-wilding degraded habitats, is one of our greatest tools in our quest to learn to live in harmony with nature. While there may be many examples of places where protection has been successful, the norm is still neglect. It is all too often still the case that rules are not enforced because of corruption, laziness, or even more tragically, shortages of resources among those trying to do the protecting.
Education must also play a vital part if we are to find the balance we desperately need. This includes education that helps people to understand the damage they do when they participate in the illegal wildlife trade, habitat destruction, chemical use, and many other potentially harmful activities. It also includes education that helps people to find alternative sources of income and raise their living standards. There is also much work to be done in changing our system of never ending consumption. Our insatiable appetite for meat, cheap consumer goods, and fossil fuels could well be our downfall.
Only if we reduce the demand for these things will we be able to afford nature the space it needs to recover to a level that allows it to support us and other complex life on Earth. Humanity currently uses around 72%10 of the terrestrial surface area of our planet, leaving less than a third for nature. Only around 2%11 of the oceans are properly protected, creating a wild west beyond the reach of the law, and ripe for continued exploitation. The challenges we face are grave, but there is still a way out; there is always a way out. We just need to pull ourselves together and get to work.
Special thanks to my partner at Found At Sea Explorers, Brendon Cammell, for editing and contributions.