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Dominican Republic expands its Marine Protected Areas, setting a global standard in conservation

9 Jun 2024

What is happening in the Dominican Republic?

Luis Abinader, President of the Dominican Republic, announced the establishment of additional Marine Protected Areas (MPA) in the country's territorial seas. The Dominican Republic expanded protected areas around the Silver Banks and La Navidad, in the island's northeast. The government also created the Orlando Jorge Mera Marine Sanctuary on the south coast, surrounding Beata Island. The sanctuary is named after the previous minister of the environment, who was assassinated in June 2022 for his efforts in environmental protection, particularly of oceans.

With this move, the Dominican Republic increased its marine protected area from 10.8% to 30.8%, reaching 86,175 square kilometres. Thus, the government realised Orlando Jorge Mera's ambition of doubling the country's marine reserve size. More notably, the country became the first in the Caribbean to meet the UN Kunming-Montreal Biodiversity Framework target. Also known as the Biodiversity Plan, the agreement was adopted in 2022 at the 15th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Biological Diversity, with one of its key aims being to protect at least 30% of terrestrial and marine ecosystems by 2030.

The MPA designation is based on data from two scientific expeditions in early 2024. The first studied the country's southern waters, including the Beata Ridge, a crucial habitat for marine mammals, seabirds, sharks, sea turtles, and fish. According to the results, the region serves as a critical region for interacting and connecting diverse endangered marine species, providing food, migration routes, and nurseries. The second expedition focused on the Silver Bank, one of the most important breeding and calving areas for the endangered North Atlantic population of humpback whales. Thousands of whales migrate south yearly to the warmer waters of the Silver Bank to mate, give birth, and nurse their calves, making the area an essential habitat for their reproduction and survival.

Additionally, this achievement is significant for Caribbean diplomatic relations, resulting from a collaborative effort between the Dominican Republic's and Colombia's governments. Indeed, the sanctuary around Beata Island encompasses a maritime chain of mountains that stretches until Colombia. The Orlando Jorge Mera Protected Area is located within the boundaries of a major transboundary MPA, the first in the Caribbean, which spans the Colombian border on the Beata Ridge seamount. This area is part of the territory of both countries and is jointly protected with Colombia under an agreement reached in 2022.

What is in it for you?

For our readers worldwide, the announcement represents a crucial milestone, considering that the established MPAs are known as one of the world's most exclusive whale-watching hotspots. Indeed, the Silver Bank has the most significant population of seasonal migrating humpback whales in the North Atlantic Ocean. 85% of North Atlantic humpback whales are born in the waters of the Dominican Republic. As a result, the new protected areas will ensure long-term viability for this endangered species' conservation and growth. In turn, it will strengthen the Dominican Republic's position as a model for other countries of environmentally conscious whale-watching destinations while providing visitors with a unique, sustainable tourism experience worldwide.

Moreover, fulfilling its "30-by-30" commitment six years in advance, the Dominican Republic's success generates great hopes for achieving the objective of the Biodiversity Plan globally. Indeed, 30-by-30 represents the world's largest conservation commitment to date. Scientists agree that safeguarding at least 30% of our planet's lands, fresh waters, and oceans by 2030 is crucial to address the combined crises of biodiversity loss and climate change. However, although over 190 countries endorsed the UN agreement, a few governments have formally committed to meeting the goal target. Today, only 17% of land and 8% of marine areas are protected. Thus, steps taken by the Dominican Republic are likely to lead to other governments following suit in the future.

For our readers in Latin America and the Caribbean, this achievement is vital for protecting critical pathways for whales migrating to other parts of the region. It is a significant milestone in establishing a marine protected area that spans international borders. The 30-by-30 effort focuses on connecting ecosystems and creating corridors for wildlife movement, which is crucial for species survival. Thus, the Dominican Republic's proposal can serve as a catalyst in the region for protecting a precious habitat for marine life and a critical area for humpback whale mating and breeding. Marine conservation organisations applauded the announcement, emphasising that this decision should generate momentum for action toward the 30% goal in the region and beyond to complement the country's efforts.

What happens next?

The Dominican Republic's MPA expansion aims to incorporate new areas to the north, east, and southeast of the current borders to preserve and protect the region's natural environments and underwater life. Similarly, it intends to preserve the country's rich biodiversity, complemented by enhanced protection measures for maritime migratory species and marine ecosystems in the sanctuaries. Furthermore, Colombia and the Dominican Republic have stated that a corridor between the two countries would be established soon to formally collaborate on maritime protection cooperation, bolstering their unique bilateral efforts to protect the environment.

Furthermore, the decision comes as world leaders gathered in Athens for the "Our Ocean" summit, where they urged governments to ratify the UN High Seas Treaty, adopted in 2023. The treaty is regarded as a critical tool for achieving the 30-by-30 objective. However, 89 countries have yet to formally ratify it, which has only been done by four states so far. The Dominican Republic was one of the countries that called on all governments to officially commit to the treaty, being a significant global pioneer for the 30-by-30 target. Thus, with six years remaining to reach the Global Biodiversity Framework target, governments worldwide may follow the Caribbean state's example.

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