Protecting the swimways of endangered species in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean

Yolanda had her 15 minutes of fame in 2021. She was the first tiger shark to record a journey from Galapagos Marine Reserve in Ecuador to Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica. The shark was tagged on an expedition led by Dr. Alex Hearn from the organisation MigraMar, with support from the non-profit organisation OCEARCH, the Galapagos National Park Directorate, and scientists from the Charles Darwin Foundation. Yolanda travelled at least 700 kilometres from the point where she was tagged in 2014 to where she was registered in 2021, providing valuable information to researchers studying the migratory movements of marine species between biodiversity hotspots in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO). 

The ETPO is a vast region that extends from the Gulf of California in northwest Mexico all the way to the Piura region in Peru. The confluence and influence of various marine currents makes the ETPO a highly dynamic environment, allowing the existence of contiguous warm (tropical) and cold (temperate) ecosystems. As such, the ETPO hosts one of the most functionally diverse ecosystems found in the world. In recognition of the uniqueness of this area, the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, and Ecuador signed a joint declaration in 2004 that created the Eastern Tropical Pacific Marine Corridor (CMAR for its acronym in Spanish), which acknowledges the ecological connectivity between marine protected areas (MPAs) and promotes the sustainable use and conservation of biodiversity.

When the CMAR was created there was no information on how exactly ecological connectivity occurred in the region. To gain a better understanding of this, scientists have been collecting data for over a decade by tagging marine species with acoustic and satellite technologies. The resulting location data have revealed that, just like Yolanda, several other marine species use well-defined migratory routes to move across the ETPO. The decade-long project has allowed researchers to understand migratory species’ susceptibility to threats when moving beyond the protective boundaries of MPAs. For example, the critically endangered scalloped hammerhead shark constantly migrates between Galapagos and Cocos, and while doing so, faces extensive pressure in unregulated fishing areas that lie between both MPAs. Information on this and other species have given managers valuable insights for marine spatial planning and improvements in protection for other threatened and protected species, such as leatherback sea turtles, green sea turtles, and thresher sharks.

A critical result of this decade-long research has been the identification of ‘swimways’—areas used by migratory species to move between feeding, resting and breeding grounds. The aim is to protect these routes and safeguard the integrity of interconnected open water and reef ecosystems between the different MPAs in the ETPO. MigraMar has identified two swimways in the region: the Cocos-Galapagos swimway, which connects Cocos Island National Park in Costa Rica and the Galapagos Marine Reserve in Ecuador; and the Coiba-Malpelo swimway, connecting Coiba National Park in Panama and Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary in Colombia.

These findings motivated scientists and conservationists to advocate for more effective protection of highly migratory species by increasing the size of existing MPAs and promoting cooperation between countries. While the CMAR is not a legally binding instrument for the protection of open water ecosystems, the creation of swimways would allow Yolanda, and other marine species, to safely migrate between these iconic MPAs. 

There are, however, challenges associated with the swimways initiative. Nature knows no borders, and thus protecting these ecosystems requires a paradigm shift from a local, single-species focus to a more holistic, regional management approach. These highly mobile species’ migratory routes are not only vast, but also in many cases remote, which makes international collaboration critical for effective management, control, and surveillance of marine resources in jurisdictional waters and the high seas. Moreover, it is also important to understand how implementing MPAs can be beneficial for the productive sector. A clear example of this is the Galapagos Marine Reserve, which hosts tourism and artisanal fishing activities within its borders and also benefits— via the spillover effect—the industrial fishing fleet that occurs right outside its limits. 

2021 was a positive year in the political arena for the consolidation of the swimways initiative. During the recent UN Climate Change Conference (COP 26) in Glasgow—almost two decades after the CMAR was created—the governments of Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador, and Colombia announced their commitment to further conserve and promote sustainable development of this marine corridor. The four countries agreed to increase the size and improve the management of the MPAs in the CMAR, as part of their commitment to protect 30 per cent of the world’s land and ocean by 2030. Panama took the lead in June 2021 by adding 50,519 km² to the Cordillera de Coiba Marine Protected Area. A few months later, Costa Rica expanded its oceanic MPAs to 54,844 km² (Cocos Island National Park) and 106,285 km²,(Seamounts Marine Management Area), for a combined protected area of 161,129 km². At the beginning of 2022, Ecuador announced the creation of ‘Hermandad’, a new 60,000-km² marine reserve in the Galapagos. Hermandad, which means sisterhood/brotherhood in Spanish, symbolises the connection of these waters with Ecuador’s neighbouring country, Costa Rica, and the importance of protecting the ecological connectivity between Cocos Island and the Galapagos. More recently, Colombia expanded the Malpelo and Yurupari MPAs to 47,300 km² and 117,600 km², respectively, and also created a new 27,400-km² MPA called Colimas and Lomas. Through the combined actions of these four countries, there has been a fourfold increase in the protection of oceanic waters of the CMAR region.

The expansion of these marine protected areas not only offers hope to restore the populations of endangered marine species, but also to strengthen ties between countries connected by the ocean. The expansion of these areas also offers a unique opportunity to secure the identified swimways, and help Yolanda and other migratory species to safely travel across the region.

Further Reading

Bucaram, S. J., A. Hearn, A. M. Trujillo, W. Rentería, R. H. Bustamante, G. Morán, G. Reck et al. 2018. Assessing fishing effects inside and outside an MPA: The impact of the Galapagos Marine Reserve on the Industrial pelagic tuna fisheries during the first decade of operation. Marine Policy 87, 212–225.

Peñaherrera-Palma, C., R. Arauz, S. Bessudo, E. Bravo-Ormaza, O. Chassot, N. Chinacalle-Martínez, E. Espinoza et al. 2018. Justificación biológica para la creación de la MigraVía Coco-Galápagos. Portoviejo, Manabí, Ecuador: MigraMar y Pontificia Universidad Católica del Ecuador Sede Manabí.

This article is from issue


2022 Jun