A booby alights on a log in the Central American Dome. Photo (c) Kip Evans/Mission Blue

July 24, 2013

By Lance Morgan, Marine Conservation Institute for Mission Blue

Originally published at National Geographic Ocean Watch

Last week an alliance of conservation organizations took a big step forward towards protecting the Central American Dome. Also referred to as the Costa Rica Dome, this highly productive region of the eastern tropical Pacific is home to abundant marine life including critically endangered leatherback sea turtles and blue whales.

The term Dome refers to an oceanographic feature that results from cold, deep ocean water rising near the surface. The water itself doesn’t dome, but a cold water band shaped like a dome comes up from the bottom. As this nutrient rich water enters depths where sunlight can penetrate it unleashes enormous plankton blooms, fueling the entire ecosystem.  In turn this supports a food web of krill, pelagic fishes and squids, predatory tunas, seabirds and marine mammals.

Because of this unique feature the Dome region was recently identified as an ecologically and biologically significant area under criteria established by the Convention of Biological Diversity. The area extends from the coast of Central America westward to the high seas.  Almost 70% of the area lies beyond national jurisdictions.

Globally, blue whale populations are still stumbling, little improved since the formal cessation of whaling almost 40 years ago and part of the reason they are not recovering may be due to deaths from ship strikes. The Central American Dome blue whale population is unique and may represent two different life histories; some of these whales migrate along the coast of North America to feed in waters off Mexico and the US, while others appear to be resident in the Dome region for long periods of each year feeding in the highly productive Dome waters. Blue whales are present year round in the Dome region. It has also been suggested by scientists that this area might be a “hatchling highway” for young leatherback sea turtles as they leave the nesting beaches of Central America and head to sea.

The event in Panama City was organized by the Central American NGO MarViva and joined by Mission Blue, the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the Marine Conservation Institute and the IUCN, the case for protecting this unique region was presented to the environmental ministers of Central America. In response the ministers have endorsed the conservation, protection and sustainable development of this region. This endorsement marks an important first step in this process bringing key governments into the process.  These Central American countries have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in helping to protect this oceanic oasis on the high seas.

Dolphins, Photo (c) Kip Evans/Mission Blue

Dolphins, Photo (c) Kip Evans/Mission Blue

This is an important early step, but it is just the beginning of a process that will take time.  Business and private partners will need to join with the NGOs and governments to identify the appropriate management actions for the region.  Global shipping in the region is significant due to the presence of the Panama Canal, and as a new and larger canal nears opening this pressure will only increase.  The CAD is also a globally important tuna fishing region.

The fate of the Dome and its inhabitants is anything but certain given human pressures in this region, but with the commitment and leadership of the Central American nations, and the alliance of conservation groups, commercial industry, marine scientists and private citizens, a long term conservation plan for this globally unique region is now within reach.    

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