When Enric Sala jumped into the Pacific Ocean 250 miles (400km) off Mexico’s west coast last year, he found himself surrounded by sharks.
That’s how you know a place is wild, the National Geographic explorer says of the sea surrounding the Revillagigedo Islands. On November 24, Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto designated those waters the Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park, banning fishing and other extractive activities within its 57,176 square miles (148,087 square km) – the largest fully protected marine reserve in North America.
It’s also the “sharkiest” place in North America, says Sala. And based on his spring 2016 expedition there, “one of the wildest in the world and probably the wildest in North America.”
The national park designation is designed to keep it that way, and it comes as part of a global push to set aside large swathes of ocean; it also reflects a shift in environmental conservation strategies in Mexico. But maintaining support for and successfully enforcing the fishing ban in an area the size of Illinois won’t be easy.
The reserve surrounds an archipelago of four islands – the peaks of submerged volcanoes – that lie a couple hundred miles from Cabo San Lucas and a bit further from Puerto Vallarta. The archipelago was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, as endangered sea turtles, tuna and humpback whales swim its waters, which are home to some 366 fish species, including 37 species of sharks and rays and 26 marine species found nowhere else.
“It’s one of best places for diving with manta rays,” says Sala. “They seem to love the bubbles (from scuba gear) – it’s like a Jacuzzi for them.” He says the reserve is home to the “largest abundance of large marine animals in the tropical waters of North America.”
To protect that biodiversity, Mexican environmental groups and the Pew Charitable Trusts formed the Coalition for the Defense of the Seas of Mexico, or CODEMAR. The coalition pored over Mexican marine laws, worked with the country’s environment minister and created an action plan, according to Mario Gomez, executive director of the Mexican nonprofit Beta Diversidad.
Announcing the Revillagigedo Archipelago reserve, Pena Nieto noted that it was the first time in Mexico that a new marine protected area had resources dedicated to its protection at its creation – in this case $165 million from the Mexican government.
“Many times, you sign a decree and then have to go back in to budget for it. In this case, immediately with the decree resources were released,” says Maximiliano Bello, an adviser to Pew’s Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, who attended the announcement in Mexico City. That budget, he says, will fund personnel and boats to enforce the “no-take” provision, as well as satellite monitoring systems and possibly drones.
“It’s a new way of doing conservation in Mexico,” says Gomez.
The country has struggled to stop illegal fishing elsewhere, including in the Gulf of California, where the illicit totoaba gillnet fishery has driven the vaquita porpoise to the brink of extinction, and at a previously established 6-square-mile (15-square-km) preserve at the Revillagigedo Islands that suffered incursions by tuna fishers. The hope is that the additional investment and technology will keep the Revillagigedo Archipelago National Park off limits to fishing.
If that happens, Sala expects the new protections to lead to an increase in sharks and manta rays – and to be a boon for recreational divers, who are allowed in the preserve. He also thinks tuna will benefit. “Reserves are investment accounts that will produce returns the fishing industry will be able to enjoy around the reserves,” he says, adding that the fishing industry has come to love the sanctuary created off the Galapagos Islands after initially opposing the reserve. That’s because fish in protected zones tend to grow so large and plentiful that they move, or spill over, to fishing grounds where they can be legally caught.
Although Mexican fishers were not happy about the creation of the Revillagigedo Archipelago preserve, Gomez says, “Everyone is complaining right now, but in the future I hope they will see that these areas will be for them because the spillover will benefit the fishing industry as well.”
But whether that occurs at Revillagigedo depends both on enforcement of the fishing ban and on community buy-in to follow the rules and help enforce them, according to Lisa Campbell, a professor at Duke University’s marine lab and cohead of the Human Dimensions of Large Marine Protected Areas research project.
Elsewhere, citizen support has been crucial for successful marine protected areas, she says. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area in Kiribati was the largest in the world when it was established in 2008, and Campbell says it is a source of national pride for residents, despite the fact that its remote location means few of them will ever visit it. And in September, nearly three-quarters of the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island voted to approve the establishment of a 286,000-square-mile (740,000-square-km) marine reserve.
Bello, who is Chilean, worked on that project, which he says will encompass more than 45 percent of Chile’s exclusive economic zone. Revillagigedo, he says, is “part of [the] wider movement of expansion in Latin America.”
The trend is global. In the past decades, the percentage of ocean surface area set aside in marine protected areas has risen from less than 1 percent to about 5 percent, according to the United Nations. Still, just about 1 percent of those reserves are fully protected from fishing and other extractive industries.
Sala’s Pristine Seas project at the National Geographical Society lists 20 of “the ocean’s wildest places” it would like to be protected by 2020, the deadline for a U.N. goal to set aside 10 percent of the world’s oceans in reserves. In Mexico, CODEMAR has a list of places the coalition would like to see protected in the country’s waters, though Gomez wouldn’t say exactly where they are. “We might get into a fight if we share them now,” he says.
Whether those places are effectively protected may hinge on undertaking a careful, deliberate process to create reserves. “One of the things we’ve learned is how important process is – who is engaged in debating and deciding,” says Campbell, who was not involved in the Revillagigedo project. “Having a good process in place to ensure the major stakeholder groups are heard from, and that if you’ve made any promises to those groups they’re realized, is necessary to realizing the intended benefits of the places to people, not just to marine ecology.”
Gomez notes that future efforts to protected Mexican waters will need to include more fishing industry interests – Revillagigedo affected only tuna fishers. Revillagigedo, he says, was a “first step – and a glorious first step.”