Marine reserves are climate reserves: Mexico has the chance to protect its ocean and fight climate change

Friday, 10 November 2017 11:46 GMT

In this 2009 archive photo storm clouds gather over San Jose del Cabo. REUTERS/Alejandro Rivas

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Creating marine reserves can help to rebuild and strengthen our resilience to the impacts of climate change

When world leaders adopted of the Paris Agreement two years ago at the UNFCCC COP21, its text included a critical word that will help us to fight climate change: ocean. In its preamble, the agreement called for nations to note “the importance of ensuring the integrity of all ecosystems, including oceans, and the protection of biodiversity.” Later in article five, the text reads, “Parties should take action to conserve and enhance, as appropriate, sinks and reservoirs of greenhouse gases.”

What the Paris Agreement is stating, in plain terms, is this: ocean conservation should be considered a key tool for fighting climate change. The inclusion of these words is recognition from global leaders of the role safeguarding the ocean will have as we try to address the impacts of climate change. This should not be a surprising conclusion.

With COP23 underway in Bonn, Germany, delegations will be working on how they will meet the commitments held within the Paris Agreement. And as this is taking place, the Government of Mexico is considering establishing a large national marine park to protect its Revillagigedo Archipelago. It is an action that would ensure the integrity of this swath of ocean, protect its biodiversity and affirm Mexico’s commitment to the international community to combat climate change.

The oceans are a massive carbon sink and science has shown us that they have absorbed 40% of the carbon emitted during the industrial age. The interesting fact that science has also confirmed for us is that creating large, well-managed and highly protected marine reserves can help to rebuild and strengthen our resilience to the impacts of climate change.

The recognition afforded to the oceans in the Paris Agreement happened concurrently with the trend – which is still continuing – of countries acting to establish large, highly protected marine reserves. The United States, United Kingdom, Palau, Chile and CCAMLR – the coalition of countries that work to conserve the Antarctic – have all taken action to protect huge ocean territories over the past three years.

The fact is that these reserves are climate reserves, helping slow the effects of climate change, strengthening the adaptability of ocean ecosystems, and rebuilding biodiversity. They also help to promote the resilience our oceans and people can have to the impacts we are feeling from climate change.

In the case of Revillagigedo, a marine park there would protect an astounding amount of marine life. Found 500 miles west of the Mexican mainland and 250 miles south of the Baja Peninsula, these four volcanic islands, are a dynamo of ocean productivity and serve as a critical hub of connectivity across the Pacific for open water and migratory species.

Revillagigedo sits at the convergence of two ocean currents and astride two tectonic plates with a system of seamounts that combine to create the perfect conditions for upward mixing of nutrients from the ocean floor to the surface to support a rich array of life. The islands  are home to over 360 species of fish, dozens of coral species, 37 species of sharks and rays, four species of sea turtles, mahi-mahi, marlin, yellowfin tuna, manta rays, whales, orcas, dolphins and countless others. And right now, the islands are receiving their annual visit from humpback whales, which head south for the warmer waters to give birth and nurse their young.

The Revillagigedo Archipelago is at risk, however. Even with recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage site and status as a Mexican biosphere reserve, fishing is still allowed in close proximity to the islands. Not to mention, they are still subject to widespread pollution and climate change pressures. Marine ecosystems are resilient, but if they are not given relief in the form or protection, they will struggle to cope with human pressures and global change. We could lose them and the benefits they can provide forever.

Establishing a fully protected marine park in the Revillagigedo Islands will not only protect a vital and dynamic marine ecosystem, but can be a strategic part of Mexico’s nationally determined commitments and put the world one step closer to achieving our climate goals under the Paris Agreement.

Dr. Callum Roberts is a marine conservation biologist and professor at the University of York and is a member of the Science Advisory Board with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project.