Feature Story

Spanning Two Shores: Designing a representative system of marine protected areas in Colombia

June 4, 2017

Colombia’s Pacific and the Caribbean coasts present a wide diversity of ecological and social issues to consider in designing and managing a system of protected areas that is ecologically representative, specifically incorporates climate change adaptation criteria, and accommodates different resource-user needs and management models.

Since 1996, Colombia has been working to conserve important biodiversity and maintain ecosystem services through consolidation of a National System of Protected Areas (SINAP) that is managed in a participatory, decentralized, and coordinated manner. As part of this process, the Colombian Institute for Marine and Coastal Research (INVEMAR) conducted a study to identify ecosystems that were priorities for biodiversity conservation, and found that marine and coastal ecosystems were significantly under-represented in the national protected area system. This provided the rationale for a project to promote the conservation and sustainable use of coastal and marine biodiversity in Colombia through the design and implementation of a financially sustainable and well-managed Sub-system of National Marine Protected Areas (SMPA). The project was implemented between 2011 and 2016 by the Colombian Government with financial support from the GEF, in partnership with UNDP and other international, national, and local partners in government, business, and civil society

Colombia’s Pacific and the Caribbean coasts present a wide diversity of ecological and social issues to consider in designing and managing a system of protected areas that is ecologically representative, specifically incorporates climate change adaptation criteria, and accommodates different resource-user needs and management models.

The 3,000 km long Colombian coastline is split nearly evenly between the Pacific and Caribbean shores. The Pacific coast is one of the most rugged and precipitous in the world, with high habitat biodiversity including sea cliffs, tropical rainforest, river deltas, sandy and gravelly beaches, offshore islands, and some of the most extensive expanses of mangrove forest in the Americas. The Caribbean coast is flatter and drier, and incorporates wide sandy beaches, coastal dune systems, and shallow waters distributed in a mosaic of lagoons and estuaries along the coast and deep-water coral reefs. It also includes extensive seagrass beds and some of the most extensive coral reef systems in the Caribbean.

These ecosystems are vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. The upwelling systems in both the Pacific and Caribbean are sensitive to changes in sea temperature and prevailing winds. El Niño Southern Oscillation events disrupt upwelling, leading to lower productivity, which impacts on biodiversity and fisheries. Coastal erosion and changes in seal level and sea temperature place the breeding grounds of humpback whales, sea turtles and cliff-nesting seabirds at risk, and coral reefs are damaged by ocean acidification and warming.

Building on an existing body of scientific data, and new research carried out as part of the project, scientists designed an expanded system of marine protected areas that explicitly addressed these issues by: (i) setting quantitative targets for the total area to be brought under protection for key coastal and marine ecosystems, including deep-water coral reefs, seagrass beds, mangroves, sandy beaches, and estuaries; (ii) incorporating migration corridors and breeding grounds for humpback whales, sea turtles, and cliff-nesting sea birds into the protected area system; and, (iii) preventing or reducing conversion of mangrove forests and seagrass beds, which are important for storage of oceanic carbon, in addition to their roles in shoreline protection and as feeding grounds and nurseries for other species, including commercially important fish and shrimp.

 The Sub-System of Marine Protected Areas in Colombia now includes an ecologically representative and well-managed system of 34 marine protected areas that provide for sustainable management, protection and restoration of key biodiversity and ecosystems, to safeguard the services and economic values they supply. This makes an important contribution to building the resilience of the Colombian people and its economy to the impacts of climate change.