New York, New York, June 5th, 2017 - President Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon announced today at the United Nations Ocean Conference in New York his country’s creation of a massive marine protected areas network consisting of 9 new marine parks and 11 aquatic reserves. This bold initiative expands Gabon’s protected waters by 53,000 sq. km, just over 26% of its Territorial Sea and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). The largest protected area in the network (27,000 km2), “La Réserve Aquatique du Grand Sud du Gabon”, extends protection of the existing Mayumba National Park to the 200 nautical mile limit of Gabon’s EEZ, protecting a continuous swath of habitats and marine life from the beach to abyssal 4-kilometer depths. Small marine parks are situated at key places along the coast, such as river mouths, to protect particularly sensitive or productive resource areas.  

The stimulus to create this marine protected area network – the largest in Africa – came when President Bongo Ondimba visited the marine research vessel “Plan B” at the end of a 1-month expedition to Gabon’s waters in 2012. The Plan B belongs to renowned marine conservationist Ted Waitt, whose Foundation joined with National Geographic Pristine Seas, Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Gabon Program, and the Gabonese National Parks Agency in organizing a marine expedition along Gabon’s 800km coastline, led by Drs. Enric Sala and Mike Fay.

Results of the expedition, featured in the 2013 National Geographic film “Wild Gabon”, were presented to President Bongo Ondimba on board the Plan B, revealing to him the incredible biological treasures that lay hidden in Gabon under the surface of the ocean, but also the severe threats posed to the ecosystem by illegal fisheries. President Bongo decided there and then to act. He instructed Fay and Gabon National Parks Director Professor Lee White to launch a program that was christened “Gabon Blue”, to design a strategy to protect and restore Gabon’s rich marine ecosystems and fish stocks, and to develop a plan for sustainable fisheries management throughout Gabon’s ocean territory.

National Geographic explorer in residence Dr. Enric Sala said: “The richness we saw underwater in Gabon in 2012 gave us hope, and Gabon’s action shows tremendous leadership that we hope will resonate and be replicated across Africa’s coasts.”

President Bongo Ondimba remarked that “seeing the results of the Pristine Seas expedition made me realize that our marine ecosystems were as rich and as precious as our better known rain forests, and that we had to do for the oceans what my father, the Late President Omar Bongo Ondimba, did for the forests when he created 13 national parks in 2002”.

The announcement of the creation of the new MPA network follows the effective conclusion of a five-year long work compiling and adding to the scientific knowledge of Gabon’s marine ecosystems, coupled with extensive consultations of fisheries and environmental organizations, as provided for by Gabon’s fisheries law. Researchers and technicians from Gabon’s Institute for Scientific Research (CENAREST), the National Parks and Fisheries Agencies, WCS, University of Exeter, private fishing and oil companies, and Aventures Sans Frontières and Manga- two local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) specializing in sea turtle conservation- contributed to this work. The work was funded by the Gabonese Government, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and by Total Gabon, Perenco, Tullow, and Ophir oil companies.

In addition to providing critical protection for ecological resources and marine species that can serve as a model for Africa and the World, Gabon’s new MPAs also provide opportunities for a range of economic, social and development activities, including fisheries and tourism exploitation. Indeed, the Government of Gabon is undertaking a complete reform of fisheries management. This program aims to restore and sustainably manage marine fisheries to ensure food security into the future and to increase the number of Gabonese people who earn their living in the fisheries sector, which traditionally has left profits and the lion’s share of the catch offshore.

WCS scientist Dr. Mike Fay, President Bongo Ondimba’s Special Advisor who has led the Gabon Blue program since its inception said: “President Bongo Ondimba once again has demonstrated his courage and his vision by translating our science and exploration work into policy.”

Dr. John Robinson, Executive Vice President, Conservation & Science at WCS said: ” The creation of the marine protected areas network complements the visionary decision of President Omar Bongo Ondimba to create 13 national parks in 2002. We applaud the president's leadership on environmental issues."

Richard Ruggiero, Chief, Division of International Conservation, United States Fish and Wildlife Service, said: “The political will for achieving conservation and sustainable wildlife and fisheries management in Gabon is exemplary and can be seen across all stakeholders, ranging from coastal communities and oil companies to the President himself. This makes us optimistic for the survival of the many species that can be found in Gabon’s waters, including the largest breeding populations of leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles, 20 species of whales and dolphins, and important fish species.”

The marine protected area will be managed by Gabon’s new Nature Preservation Agency.