Network of marine protected areas is the first of its kind in region
Gabon has declared nearly a quarter of its territorial sea off-limits to commercial fishing. The central African nation is home to a variety of threatened species including great hammerhead sharks, manta rays and whale sharks.
The proclamation was made by Gabonese President Ali Bongo Ondimba at the opening of the 2014 IUCN World Parks in Sydney, with several thousand delegates from 165 countries in attendance. "Today I can announce our decision to create a network of marine parks covering about 23 percent of Gabon's territorial waters and EEZ [exclusive economic zone], within which no commercial fishing will be allowed," said Ondimba.
The protected area will encompass over 46,000 square kilometers of ocean, protecting a wide range of species 20 species of whales and dolphins including humpback whales and Atlantic humpback dolphins. In addition, four species of marine turtles are also present, including, the world's largest breeding leatherback turtle population and the Atlantic Ocean's largest breeding olive ridley turtle population.
The declaration is the result of a dialogue between Gabon and National Geographic's Pristine Seas project, which conducted a marine survey of parts of the nation's 550-mile (885-kilometer) coastline in 2012.
"National Geographic's Pristine Seas project looks for the wildest places in the ocean, to inspire leaders to save them before it's too late. Gabon was probably the only such place left in West Africa," said National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala, who leads the project. "Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined that West African waters still held such an abundance of marine life," he added.
The new marine protected area network complements an existing system of 13 national parks on land, the ressult of a series of explorations in the country's forests led by National Geographic explorer Mike Fay. The forests teemed with gorillas, chimpanzees, forest elephants, and hippos, most of which have never encountered human beings.