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Peru approves the creation of long-awaited marine protected area

The new Grau Tropical Sea National Reserve covers just over 115,675 hectares (285,840 acres) of sea off the departments of Piura and Tumbes.

The new Grau Tropical Sea National Reserve covers just over 115,675 hectares (285,840 acres) of sea off the departments of Piura and Tumbes. Image by Yuri Hooker.

  • Experts have called the creation of the Grau Tropical Sea National Reserve, which took more than 10 years to be approved, a milestone as it is rich in biodiversity.
  • Observers expect the reserve to allow for greater control and monitoring of the area to prevent illegal fishing.
  • However, some industrial fishing, including trawling, is permitted in the new reserve, a decision criticized by marine conservation experts who say Peru needs “no-fishing areas.”
  • This is the first in a series of stories covering the Peruvian fishing industry and originally published on Mongabay’s Latam site.

In April, after 10 years of negotiations, Peru’s Council of Ministers approved the creation of the Grau Tropical Sea National Reserve. To Peruvians, it is a much-awaited marine protected area, as it’s one of the most biodiverse stretches along the country’s coastline.

The reserve covers just over 115,675 hectares (285,840 acres) of sea off the departments of Piura and Tumbes in northern Peru. Although small, it is significant due to the rich biodiversity found there, according to experts. The IUCN ranked the area among the 70 most important places in the world for marine biodiversity conservation.

The head of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (SERNANP), José Carlos Nieto Navarrete, pointed out that the reserve’s creation will allow Peru to progress towards complying with international commitments for marine area conservation.

The creation of the Grau Tropical Sea National Reserve (RNMTG) has been described by experts as a milestone for the country. However, the challenges Peru faces in conserving its seas remain great. Including the new reserve, Peru has protected less than 10% of its marine territory and remains far from the internationally agreed goal of protecting 30% of marine habitat by 2030 (the so-called 30×30 goal). Furthermore, ensuring the effective conservation of this important newly created marine area will be a serious challenge given the existing hydrocarbon-extraction and fishing interests in the area.

The richness of the tropical sea

The Grau’s Sea is a unique place formed by the convergence of two marine ecosystems: the warm tropical waters of the Eastern Pacific, which extend from Mexico to northern Peru, and the Humboldt system, with its cold, nutrient-rich waters. Humpback whales come here to give birth, and manta rays, various shark species —including the critically endangered hammerheads — and all species of sea turtles can be found here.

The area is also home to numerous endemic species of invertebrates, such as corals, anemones, mollusks and crustaceans, and dozens of species new to science are found here.

Of the 35 main fish species landed by the Peruvian artisanal fishing fleet, 24 have Piura or Tumbes as their regions of origin.

New species of anemones and deep-sea fan corals. Image by Yuri Hooker.

Given this richness in biodiversity, scientists, conservationists and artisanal fishers who benefit from the abundance of this ecosystem have been eager for its protected status for more than a decade.

Furthermore, creating the protected area is also a fundamental step to stopping threats there. “Illegal trawling occurs there every night and there is a lack of control and monitoring,” says Daniel Cáceres, a representative of the Sustainable Ocean Alliance in Latin America. “Having a protected marine area that has National Reserve status will enable more control and oversight to monitor and prevent illegal fishing,” he says. Artisanal fishers, who have been calling for the area to be made a reserve since 2010, also hope for the same.

A portion of the enormous diversity of invertebrates growing on a rocky reef in Peru’s tropical north. Image by Yuri Hooker.

To achieve this, Cáceres says “a lot of funding” and “international support” is needed. However, he says, observers hope the new reserve won’t repeat what’s happening now in the Dorsal de Nasca National Reserve, which he says is having trouble gaining international support. “Since it is a marine protected area that allows industrial fishing, organizations say, ‘We don’t understand what it protects. We’re not going to put money into it.’ This is why it’s also important for the area to really allows the services that nature has been providing for millions of years to be maintained,” he says.

This point worries some conservationists, as the Supreme Decree that created the RNMTG recognizes previously acquired rights. Industrial fishing will therefore be permitted to continue in part of the area, as well as hydrocarbon extraction.

The tropical sea has huge productivity and fills all habitats with life. Image by Yuri Hooker.

Controversy over pre-existing rights

Despite the significance of this marine area in Peru, the creation of the protected area had been stopped until now due to overlapping interests, as the Grau Sea not only has extraordinary biodiversity, but is also the site of an important industry — hydrocarbon extraction.

However, at present it is not oil extraction that most concerns scientists and conservationists, but fishing.

In October 2023, the environment ministry published a draft version of the Supreme Decree establishing the RNMTG for civil society members to weigh in on. One particular detail of the decree that concerned some environmental organizations and experts is that industrial fishing, including trawling, would be permitted in almost half the reserve. Now, as the final Supreme Decree is published, this is a reality.

The Grau Sea is one of the world’s 70 most important places for marine biodiversity conservation, according to the IUCN. Image by Yuri Hooker.

Alfredo Gálvez, a legal specialist with the biodiversity program of the Peruvian Society of Environmental Law, said at that time that the decree’s regulations prohibit large-scale fishing within protected areas, but “the Peruvian legal framework on protected areas respects pre-existing rights. In other words, he said, “all those rights that existed before the reserve’s creation are maintained and respected.”

However, an important point is that these rights cannot be exercised with total freedom but must be adapted to the reserve’s objectives and purposes, according to Silvana Baldovino, director of the society’s biodiversity and Indigenous peoples program. “Like any right within a protected natural area, activities will need to have certain limitations for their exercise,” she says.

Even so, this is a controversial topic that raises concerns.

A view of Punta Sal reefs in the Grau Tropical Sea. Image by Yuri Hooker.

“It is clearly and directly expressed within the directives of the International Union for Conservation of Nature that larger-scale industrial fishing is not compatible with a protected area,” said Juan Carlos Riveros, science director of the marine conservation organization Oceana, when the draft Supreme Decree was released in October 2023.

Riveros said this because industrial fishing has the capacity to extract large quantities of biomass.

“[N]o marine protected area in the world allows industrial fishing because it captures large volumes, which goes directly against the objectives of creating a protected natural area,” Yuri Hooker, director of the biology laboratory of Cayetano Heredia University in Peru, said at the time.

“What Peru needs are no-fishing areas”

The RNMTG includes four sectors: Punta Sal reefs, Cabo Blanco–El Ñuro, Foca Island and Máncora Bank. The first three are located along the coast and record the greatest number of newly described fish, corals, marine sponges and echinoderms. They are important feeding grounds, a refuge for sea turtles, and have huge schools of commercially important fish.

The fourth area, Máncora Bank –– an underwater ravine about 250 kilometers (155 miles) long –– is more than 8 km (5 mi) offshore. Due to its characteristics, there is little information about the biodiversity there. However, it is known that “there are deep moving currents, and that when these collide with the underwater mountain, they generate very nutritious marine upwellings towards the surface,” Hooker said in October 2023. It is therefore a feeding area for migratory species and also serves as a navigation point for sea turtles, whale sharks and other species.

Grau Tropical Sea. Image by Yuri Hooker.

It is here on Máncora Bank that industrial ships that fish for mackerel and hake trawlers are operating legally and will be able to continue to do so.

“That’s a concern because ultimately the status quo is maintained but what Peru needs are no-fishing areas,” says Maximiliano Bello, an ocean policy expert and executive advisor to the California-based marine conservation organization Mission Blue.

“Peru has made an intensive extractive use of the ocean for decades, but at the same time has also benefited a lot from that wealth,” he says. “Peru needs a much deeper discussion about truly protected spaces, without activities that have an impact, if what it wants is to continue living off that ocean.”

With respect to oil activities, Cáceres says the creation of the reserve should bring about more monitoring and care in preventing spills, since the legal issues and costs are much greater when they occur within a protected area.

Banner image: The new Grau Tropical Sea National Reserve covers just over 115,675 hectares (285,840 acres) of sea off the departments of Piura and Tumbes. Image by Yuri Hooker.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latam team and first published here on our Latam site on April 29, 2024.

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