Cocos Island's New Shark and Sea Turtle Refuge Is Bigger Than Yellowstone (Pics)

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Hammerhead sharks, largely lost from much of their former range, are still found in schools numbering in the hundreds around Cocos Island. Photo via Conservation International, by Sterling Zumbrunn

Great news for marine animals: an enormous area around Cocos Island, also called "Shark Island" for it's high population of the apex predators, is now a safe haven for species from hammerhead sharks to leatherback turtles. The Costa Rican government has declared the area Seamounts Marine Management Area, and it covers nearly a million hectares, or 3,861 square miles. For comparison, that's bigger than Yellowstone National Park! It makes the total area five times larger than the existing national park, and will include a fully protected no-fishing zone along with limited catch zones.

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Cocos Island. Steep slopes of Cocos Island covered with tropical forests that receive up to 3m of rainfall each years, such that water can be collected from waterfalls directly onto sailboats hugging the coastlines. Photo via Conservation International, by Scott Henderson
Conservation International brought us the news last week, reporting that the reserve is about 342 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, and it's popular inhabitants include white tipped reef sharks, whale sharks, and scalloped hammerhead sharks along with over 30 unique, marine endemic species.

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Whale sharks, the largest fish in the world and holy grail to scuba divers, regularly concentrate around Cocos Island. Photo via Conservation International, by Phil Colla

The reserve is going to go a long way to protect the health of fish stocks and the ecosystem, especially when it comes to endangered species like several types of sea turtles, including the critically endangered leatherback sea turtle. Frighteningly, the Costa Rican population of these turtles has dipped by 40% in just 8 years and 90% in the last two decades, due mainly to illegal egg harvesting.

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Photo via Conservation International, by Jason Bradley/

According to Conservation International, Costa Rican Marine Program Coordinator for Conservation International, Marco Quesada said, "Creating a protected seamount area sets an important precedent. Sea mounts host endemic species, and the deep water that upwells along their sides brings nutrients that support rich feeding grounds for sealife on the surface. Seamounts serve as stepping stones for long-distance, migratory species, including sharks, turtles, whales and tuna. So we applaud the vision of the Costa Rican President, Laura Chinchilla Miranda, as well as the Minister and Vice Minister of Environment in making this historic move."

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Bigeye Jacks found schooling by the thousands in spawning aggregations around Cocos Island. Photo via Conservation International, by Sterling Zumbrunn

Scott Henderson, Regional Marine Conservation Director for Conservation International said, "Protecting threatened marine life and ensuring thriving fisheries is what our Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape Program is all about. Costa Rica and its neighbors are enormously important centers of marine diversity and abundance that underpin valuable fisheries and tourism industries. Today's announcement reconfirms Costa Rica's role as a regional leader in green economic development -- extending this approach from its land to its oceans. Tomorrow's fisheries will show that the expansion of Cocos benefits fishermen, too."

The refuge is a major victory for marine conservation, and every one of these victories matters. Famed marine biologist and ocean explorer Sylvia Earle calls these areas "hope spots" because they represent where we can hope to see a turn-around of the ocean's health. By setting up this new reserve, Costa Rica is giving endangered and threatened species hope for survival, and conservationists hope that more areas will be set aside as safe zones for wildlife.

Currently only a tiny fraction of marine areas are protected, but that is growing. Check out this animated map to find out more about where marine protected areas exist, and what they're doing for sea life.

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