Bottle nose dolphins. Photo credit: Peadar Brehony/WCS   

University of Exeter research contributes to establishment of first Marine Protected Area Network in Central Africa

Work undertaken by a research team at the University of Exeter has been instrumental in the announcement today by the government of Gabon of its decision to create a new marine protected area network. 

The network will consist of ten marine parks covering more than 18,000 square miles (over 46,000 square kilometres) that will safeguard whales, sea turtles, and other marine species inhabiting the country’s coastal and offshore ecosystems and will cover about 23% of Gabon's territorial waters and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). The announcement was made by His Excellency The President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba in Sydney as the world's conservationists gather for the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress.

The team from Exeter was primarily involved in work which involved tracking turtles, analysing fisheries and more recently with marine spatial planning to ensure that the resultant MPA network benefitted biodiversity whilst minimising impacts on local communities. This followed on from more than ten years of previous research conducted by Professor Brendan Godley, Dr Matthew Witt and Dr Kristian Metcalfe into Gabon’s marine biodiversity that was supported in the UK by funding from Defra’s Darwin Initiative and NERC in collaboration with the government of Gabon and other stakeholders.

Prof Brendan Godley from the University of Exeter said:  “We are delighted that our work has been able to underpin such a massive step in marine conservation. The government of Gabon should be widely applauded for this truly momentous decision”

Dr Kristian Metcalfe, Darwin Research Fellow said: “By complementing its existing network of 13 National Parks created in 2002 and establishing such a large-scale marine protected area network in its waters Gabon has ensured a conservation legacy almost unrivalled in scale and significance anywhere in Central Africa”.

The parks will protect more than 20 species of whales and dolphins, including humpback whales and Atlantic humpback dolphins, four species of marine turtles including the world’s largest breeding leatherback turtle population and the Atlantic Ocean’s largest breeding olive ridley turtle population. More than 20 species of sharks and rays occur in Gabon’s waters, many of which are threatened, including great hammerhead sharks, manta rays, whale sharks and tiger sharks.

“By scaling marine protected areas and other conservation measures across the entirety of its EEZ, on this massive scale, Gabon is setting an example for the world,” said Caleb McClennen, WCS Marine Program Executive Director. “This new marine protected area system will help protect the country’s marine wildlife, while taking significant steps to curtail unregulated and unsustainable fishing which plagues much of Africa’s coastal waters."

Hugo Rainey, Senior Technical Advisor (Seascape) with WCS Gabon concluded: "Gabon's President has assured the conservation of the globally important breeding populations of whales and turtles found there. By announcing the creation of community fishing zones he is also guaranteeing the livelihoods of the people of the country too."

Date: 12 November 2014

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