Portugal Creates Europe's Largest Marine Reserve

It moves the world closer to the goal of protecting 30% of land and water by 2030.

Amberjacks (Seriola dummerili and S. rivoliana) are highly valued fisheries species that were abundant in the Selvagens
Amberjacks (Seriola dummerili and S. rivoliana) are highly valued fisheries species that were abundant in the Selvagens.

Andy Mann / National Geographic Pristine Seas

Portugal on Monday announced the creation of the largest marine protected area in Europe.

The new reserve protects 2,677 square kilometers (approximately 1,034 square miles) around the Selvagens Islands, an archipelago in the North Atlantic that sits halfway between the Canary Islands and Madeira. The new reserve expands existing protections put in place for sea birds and moves the world closer to the goal of protecting 30% of land and water by 2030.

“When we say the largest marine reserve in Europe, it’s exciting, because it really is a sense of leadership and ambition,” Paul Rose of Pristine Seas, who led an expedition to the islands in 2015, tells Treehugger. In the context of the 30X30 target, Portugal’s announcement, “shows that we can actually do this,” he added. 

Bursting with Life

Pristine Seas is an underwater exploration project founded by National Geographic Explorer in Residence Enric Sala. The organization works to inspire the protection of unique marine ecosystems through expeditions documenting their amazing biodiversity. In the last 12 years, the project has traveled to 31 places, and 24 of them have since been protected. These new reserves cover an area of more than 6 million square kilometers (approximately 2.3 square miles), more than double the size of India. 

The story of how the Selvagens Islands became one of them began in 1971 when the area became the first classified Nature Reserve in Portugal’s history. The volcanic islands are largely uninhabited by humans, but host the world’s largest colony of Cory’s Shearwater seabirds. 

It’s thanks to these birds that the islands were protected, to begin with, Rose says, and they surrounded the islands when Rose and his team arrived there in September of 2015. 

“After a day of diving, we could be on deck and just watch hundreds of thousands of Corey’s shearwaters coming over us to land back on the islands,” he says. 

Below the ocean, too, the area was “bursting with life.” 

The islands are in the middle of the wild Atlantic ocean and surrounded by cold-water reefs. Rose and his team saw 51 species of fish including sharks and barracudas, as well as moray eels.

“I had an amazing dive on a small shipwreck there, and as I swam into the open hold, the open cargo hold, I could see ahead of me hundreds of thousands of small fish swimming out the other side,” he says.   

The team also liked to dive around a particular wave that crested in a perfect and eternal curl over a seamount. 

“We fell in love with that wave and it became the symbol of the Selvagens expedition,” he says. 

The islands were already protected to a depth of 200 meters (approximately 656 feet), but it didn’t take very far from shore to hit this limit because of the islands’ steep volcanic slopes.

“This does not provide protection for many of the wider ranging species such as seabirds, marine mammals, and tuna that rely on this important area, with fishing activity often occurring in close proximity to the coastline,” the expedition concluded at the time.

Pristine Seas’ partner organization Oceano Azul was mostly responsible for making the case for greater protections with the Portuguese government, but Rose said there wasn’t much convincing required. 

“Beautiful places that aren’t protected sort of sell themselves,” he says. 

Thorny Seastar (Coscinasterias tenuispina) in a crevice.
Thorny Seastar (Coscinasterias tenuispina) in a crevice.

Andy Mann / National Geographic Pristine Seas

Paradise Threatened 

Rose says marine ecosystems face three major threats: fishing, pollution, and the climate crisis. However, protecting them against the first goes a long way towards helping them survive the second two. 

“[I]f a reef is protected from fishing and all extractive industries, it means it’s more resilient,” he says. “And we’ve proven that again and again and again.”

Before the more extensive protections were put in place, the islands’ marine life was threatened both by illegal fishing within the reserve boundaries and unregulated or poorly-regulated fishing for tuna and other species near the reserve. However, Rose says protecting the area is ultimately a boon for fishers. That’s because when an area is protected, the biomass within increases by a factor of around 600.

“The fish don’t know they’re protected, so they swim outside,” Rose explains. 

This means the fishing ends up being even better on the boundaries of the marine reserve and the rest of the ocean, an area known as the “spillover zone.” 

Ultimately, protected areas can help create a more sustainable fishing industry. 

“When a place is protected, it’s a bit like having a garden at home,” Rose says. “You don’t go out there and take everything out of the ground and eat it all at once and then wonder why nothing’s come back. You work it out properly.”

The intertidal areas of the Selvagens Islands possess one of the least impacted representation of this ecosystem in Macaronesia.
The intertidal areas of the Selvagens Islands possess one of the least impacted representation of this ecosystem in Macaronesia.

Andy Mann / National Geographic Pristine Seas

30 x 30

The new protections aren’t just good news for the fish and birds of the Selvagens Islands. They are also a sign that world leaders are moving in the right direction to protect 30% of land and water by 2030, a goal Rose believes is both necessary and achievable. 

“It’s hugely energizing to realize that so many countries, so many leaders, and so many organizations and individuals are behind it,” he says. 

To that end, Pristine Seas has 40 expeditions planned in the next nine years to suss out more candidates for protection. Rose himself has a busy itinerary for the next eight months. He is off to the Maldives in January, then heading to Colombia’s Atlantic and Caribbean coast from February to April, before traveling to the Arctic in July and August. 

Rose hopes Portugal’s decision will also encourage European countries, in particular, to be more ambitious in protecting their waters, as they currently lag behind the rest of the world.

The Selvagens reserve “is the biggest in Europe,” he says, “but on a global scale, it’s really quite small.”

Before it was announced, the largest marine reserve in Europe was in Sicily’s Egadi Islands. It only covers 208.5 square miles. 

Ideally, Rose would like to see protections put in place for 30 percent of the Mediterranean. 

The so-called Middle Sea is home to sharks, manta rays, and whales, but it’s warming fast and suffers from high pollution levels and unsustainable fishing. 

“It’s an iconic bit of water for us Europeans and we really should be protecting it,” he says. 

He believes it will happen in his lifetime.