Yesterday was a great day for ocean conservation. Yes, of course, the historic agreement between the U.S. and China to curb their greenhouse gas emissions will help decrease the amount of carbon pollution that ends up in the ocean.
But there was another announcement that was also historic and will begin to turn the tide in another part of the world in need of ocean conservation leadership. President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon outlawed commercial fishing in 23 percent of Gabon’s ocean waters. This is the kind of bold move for the blue that no other leader of a Central African nation has made before. More than 18,000 square miles of ocean will be protected from uncontrolled commercial fishing. Whales, sharks, turtles, rays, and countless other marine species in jeopardy from industrialization and overfishing will now have a blue haven on the West African coast.
VIDEO: NG Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala describes the Pristine Seas expedition to Gabon.
With this action, President Bongo is taking a major step in building a blue economy for Gabon. At first it may seem counter-intuitive that reducing fishing can help to improve an economy. While outlawing commercial fishing in some areas, though, Gabon is also explicitly creating community fishing zones and commercial fishing zones in other parts of their waters. This way, they can control legal fishing, and make sure that there are jobs for fishermen and plenty of fish for people in Gabon to eat. At the same time, it will make it easier to apprehend those boats that are fishing illegally—and which take up to 60 percent of the fish coming out of Gabon’s waters.
On land, Gabon has been green for a long time. More than a decade ago, the country created 13 national parks to protect over 11 percent of its land base. National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Wildlife Conservation Society scientist Mike Fay was instrumental in that effort. His Megatransect Project, which documented the rich biodiversity found in undeveloped inland tracts across Gabon, provided the visual and scientific evidence of the country’s rich wilderness, and inspired the historic land conservation plan known as Green Gabon. Fay and others soon realized that there is a green-blue connection—what happens on land impacts the coastal areas and vice versa. And so the idea of a blue equivalent of these land-based parks was born. The action announced by President Bongo includes a 10,425-square-mile extension of Mayumba National Park—one of the few land-sea conjoined parks of this size in the world.
VIDEO: In a clip from “Africa’s Wild Coast,” the Pristine Seas team sights sharks and records them as proof of the richness and health of Gabon’s marine ecosystem.
Moreover, Gabon’s leaders realized that in order to maximize productivity in their oceans, they had to divide and conquer. A free-for-all of ocean extraction was robbing the country of a lot of potential revenue and resources. Pirate fishermen were taking in the lion’s share of the fish, and worse yet, putting Gabon at risk for an even greater disaster—oil spills caused by fishing gear breaking their oil and gas infrastructure.
Indeed, one other important part of Gabon’s blue economy is offshore oil and gas, and these undersea oil platforms are havens for marine life. So by closing oil and gas areas to commercial fishing, the government is improving the habitat for many marine species, allowing them to thrive. When National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project together with the Waitt Foundation, Wildlife Conservation Society, and Parcs Gabon conducted an expedition in Gabon in 2012 we found an undersea Eden had grown up on and around the rigs.
This conservation success story is great news for West Africa. Struggling to rid itself of Ebola and stamp out terrorism and wildlife crime the region needs more good news like this. Let’s hope other leaders there will try to become more “blue,” like Gabon.
Tune in to a live chat with National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Director of the Pristine Seas Project Enric Sala on the National Geographic Ocean Facebook Page to ask your questions about this unprecedented step in ocean conservation Monday, November 17 at 5PM EST. Watch “Africa’s Wild Coast” on Nat Geo Wild Friday, November 14 at 6PM EST.