Revillagigedo National Park: Creating the Largest Marine Protected Area in North America

“The Revillagigedo Islands: the name to me, as a scientist, just inspired this sense of wonder.” The reverence with which Dr. Sylvia Earle regards the Revillagigedo islands in Mexico is merely the top of the list of reasons why it is considered one of the most special places on the planet.

Consisting of four islands of volcanic origin, Revillagigedo is home to the greatest concentration of large tropical marine animals in North America, including giant manta rays, hammerhead sharks and humpback whales. This archipelago is part of a submerged mountain range, and as Dr. Earle says, “an island that comes up above the surface but is also an island below the surface – that for me, as an ocean scientist, is magical.”

Mexico’s National Commission on Protected Areas (CONANP) made a monumental commitment at Our Ocean 2017: to create Revillagigedo National Park, a Marine Protected Area (MPA) around the islands extending across almost 150,000 km2 of ocean. This no-take zone off its Pacific coast is now North America’s largest fully protected and implemented MPA.

When it comes to Revillagigedo, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016, CONANP Commissioner Roberto Aviña’s vision for it is global: “This is more than a strategy for Mexico,” he says. “It’s not a local, regional or national action, but a conservation measure for the world.”

Revillagigedo owes its creation to an unprecedented coalition coming together. With backing at the very top from President Enrique Peña Nieto, work to create the MPA involved a great diversity of collaborators including CONANP, Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), Pew-Bertarelli Ocean Legacy , Coalition in Defence of the Seas of Mexico (CODEMAR), NGO partner Beta Diversidad, Pelagios Kakunjá, IUCN, UNESCO, the scientific community, universities, small-scale fishers and tourism operators, supported by national and social media – and, of course, the people of Mexico.

MPAs are a crucially important tool in the fight to save the global ocean, and we need many more of them to be created – scientists call for at least 30% fully and highly protected and implemented MPAs across the global ocean by 2030, with the remaining 70% sustainably managed. Mexico’s bold work reflected exactly the kind of decisive international action that’s required across the world in the years ahead.

For an MPA to be a success, it needs to be managed, monitored and enforced – and doing that across a huge area of ocean hundreds of kilometres from shore is a major challenge. Again, many actors are involved. The Mexican Navy plays an important role here, collaborating with CONANP, the national fisheries commission, to run an electronic surveillance system to guard against illegal fishing in the park. Without effective measures on this front, IUU fishing would be rife and the MPA would fail.

So far, it seems to be working. Monitoring data is still being finalised, but anecdotally tourist operators have been reporting a big increase in biomass, particularly of sharks and tuna species. Visitors are coming to the protected waters, attracted by the wonderful marine biodiversity.

Revillagigedo makes long-term economic sense too. Not only does thriving biodiversity attract tourist revenue, but it spreads out across the ocean. Fish rest, breed, are born and grow in the MPA, overfished stocks will begin to recover, and fishers in surrounding seas will benefit as the replenished ecosystem becomes more and more productive.

As Aviña explains, “The new strategic environmental policy in Mexico means to conserve producing and produce to conserve. That’s the strategy that the government wants to strengthen in terms of fisheries management as well as in the business sector and non-governmental organizations.”

“Revillagigedo is a great opportunity that inspires us to work, to be constant and tenacious in terms of conserving the great natural and social heritage of our country, the region, America and the world. In that sense, this inspiration is a great possibility to keep growing towards more Natural Protected Areas as a conservation tool.”

But there’s no time to waste, says Aviña. Everyone needs to get around the table: “Conservation public policy is currently at a very important moment for all the countries in the world to work together. It’s important that different countries come together quickly towards an ocean conservation agenda that’s vital not only because of its size, but for the development and growth of life on the planet.”

Photo Credit: Ramón Castellanos