At the United Nations Ocean Conference held in Lisbon last month, the Dominican Republic announced plans to expand its protected marine areas to 30% by 2030. As part of the United Nation’s 30×30 movement, this commitment will help the Dominican government direct critical resources toward protecting the country’s unique ocean ecosystems.
Among the newly protected areas are the Beata marine mountain range and the Silver and Navidad Banks, part of which is set to be named after the recently passed former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Orlando Jorge Mera.
A steadfast advocate for ocean protection, Mera realized the critical importance of conservation initiatives, particularly among Caribbean nations. Mera recently stated in an interview with El Pais that
“Caribbean countries are not among the largest producers of greenhouse gasses, but we are among those most in danger.” -Former Minister of Environment and Natural Resources, Orlando Jorge Mera
This is due to small island developing states’ relatively high concentration of human settlements and economic assets near coastal areas, as well as lower investments in adaptation infrastructure, reports climate change research group Climate Analytics.
The newly announced Marine Protected Area (MPA) expansion, however, will bring the Dominican Republic one step closer toward realizing Mera’s dream of more than doubling the size of the country’s marine reserves.
“It is a very exciting development, but the beginning of a lot of work to explore and document the areas that would be included in the new MPA, and then work through the process of actually expanding the MPAs,” – Jake Kheel, Vice President of the Grupo Puntacana Foundation
Kheel, Vice President of the Grupo Puntacana Foundation, has been working with the Dominican government and ocean conservation advocacy organization Mission Blue for the past eight months to help push this expansion plan forward.
According to Kheel, MPAs are the marine equivalent of terrestrial protected areas, which have management plans, permitted activities and regulations that seek to provide additional protections for key habitats and species in those areas. Efforts such as the Southeast Reef Marine Sanctuary, co-managed by Grupo Puntacana (GPC), demonstrate the power of public-private alliances in protecting over 786,300 hectares of reef environment and reducing negative ocean impacts related to climate stress, overfishing and pollution.
Such conservation efforts are funded in part by partnerships with the regenerative ecotourism industry, which aims to provide a reliable revenue stream as well as inspirational experiences for guests to deepen their understanding of their hotels’ surrounding ecosystems. Among GPC’s hotel properties is the Tortuga Bay Puntacana Resort and Club, a Regenerative Travel Member Hotel, where guests may enroll in a PADI Coral First Aid Specialty Dive Certification course, take an educational visit to the Center for Marine Innovation or assist with coral restoration or mangrove planting. This year, GPC will also begin pilot testing of its new REEFhabilitation experience, co-created with the Nature Conservancy and Booking Cares Fund, which promises guests a unique and hands-on coral restoration and learning adventure.
Still, MPAs have not gone without criticism. In 2017, Pew Trusts reported that up to 32% of seafood imported into the U.S. is caught illegally, suggesting that enclosure enforcement efforts alone may be insufficient in solving this international and multifaceted environmental problem. Indigenous rights activism group Survival International has also criticized the language of the UN’s 30% target for its potential to perpetuate the displacement and abuse of Indigenous peoples.
As the 30×30 movement grows, it is imperative that conservation advocacy groups center justice, biodiversity and the voices of their local communities to prevent ongoing tragedies related to fortress conservation. Multi-stakeholder initiatives like the Southeast Reef Marine Sanctuary — whose management board comprises government entities, foundations, community groups and fishermen associations — work to mitigate such concerns by leveraging their diversity to provide for more equitable and community-driven decision-making.
Despite outstanding uncertainties and industry growing pains, Dr. Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, nevertheless called the Dominican’s new MPA development “inspiring and hopeful.” In the organization’s press release regarding the announcement, Earle stated that “the Dominican Republic is setting an outstanding example that I hope many others will follow.”
“I am excited and honored to be part of this process,” Kheel added, “but it’s very clear that this is only the beginning.”