Oceana calls for a Marine Protected Area around El Hierro to accelerate the recovery after the underwater eruption

The proposed area, of 1,650 km2, would allow the reproduction of the local species and would foster the increase of the fish population.

Press Release Date: November 4, 2011

Location: Madrid


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The only existing images of the area in which the volcano has appeared were filmed by Oceana two years ago and they have been sent to scientists.

Oceana has put forward a proposal for the creation of a marine protected area of at least 1,650 km2 all around the island of El Hierro, in order to protect the great biodiversity of this island, unique in the Canary Islands, and to accelerate the recovery after natural or accidental catastrophic events. The international organization for marine conservation is presenting today a map of the initiative after hearing the results of the monitoring commission of the La Restinga Marine Reserve – Mar de las Calmas.

The uniqueness of the marine areas surrounding the island clearly justifies the need to create a marine protected area all around El Hierro. This proposal had already been outlined by Oceana after the expedition it carried out in 2009, during which it documented the bottoms up to 700 metres throughout the archipelago. The images obtained then, which demonstrate the uniqueness of the island and are the only ones in existence at that depth, were sent a few days ago to the Instituto Español de Oceanografía [Spanish Institute for Oceanography]. In this way, scientists will be able to evaluate the impacts of the underwater volcano by comparing the images taken by Oceana before the eruption with the ones currently being obtained on board the vessel Ramón Margalef.

“The extraordinary uniqueness of El Hierro is caused by the rough geomorphology of its bottoms and warmer waters, making it one of the most interesting islands in the Atlantic”, explains Ricardo Aguilar, Research Director at Oceana Europe. “It holds species which do not appear in the rest of the Canary Islands. Oceana has even been able to identify in the waters of this island species that had never before been documented in Canarian waters, like certain hydrozoans, dead men’s fingers, orange tree corals and the odd ctenophore, which is why we need to assure the protection of all surrounding waters”. 

Oceana documented with ROV (Remotely Operated Vehicle) underwater caves around El Hierro, fields of “Mexican Sombrero” sponges, mixed fields of corals, beds of giant deep-sea oysters and a great variety of fish. Furthermore, the presence in these waters of resident populations of beaked whales and bottlenose dolphins, of migratory species like finback and humpback whales and 5 of the 8 known species of sea turtles. There are also sharks which are in a critical or threatened situation, like the hammerhead shark, the angel shark or the whale shark.

Ecosystems which have not suffered great impacts caused by human activities are more capable of recovery after natural catastrophes of great proportions. The creation of marine protected areas where the resources and the activities carried out in them are properly handled allows the maintenance of a great abundance, biomass and biodiversity of species, the reduction of the loss of threatened and vulnerable species, and the preservation of critical habitats, thereby optimizing the recovery of adjacent areas. A good example thereof is the marine reserve of fishing interests Mar de las Calmas, promoted by the fishermen of La Restinga themselves. Before the eruption, the abundance of fish was clearly greater inside it than outside and, moreover, the population of the lime urchin, which is a serious threat in other islands.

“Marine protected areas create an ideal space to protect rearing and hatching areas where the species that populate nearby areas grow and allow their fast recovery after suffering great impacts, caused either by nature or by human activities”, indicated Ana de la Torriente, Oceana’s marine scientist.Apart from protecting the vast biodiversity of El Hierro, great benefits would be generated for the local population that lives from artisanal fishing and tourism”.

Oceana’s proposal is a bare minimum design based on the research carried out by the marine conservation organization and it represents an area six times greater than the emerged part. Moreover, it is consistent with the proposal presented by the Investigation Group BIOECOMAC of the University of la Laguna in collaboration with the Government of the Canary Islands in 2008 in their report “Establishing a scientific base for the proposal for the creation of a marine protected area in the island of El Hierro”.

Oceana proposes a network of marine areas in the Canarian archipelago including 19 new marine protected areas or the enlargement of some already existing ones, covering 15% of the Spanish waters around the archipelago. The Canary Islands stand out for their environmental heterogeneity, since there are great differences between Eastern and Western islands, mainly in the most superficial areas. Therefore, it is essential to protect the different environments in order to preserve all their marine richness.

Oceana’s proposal consists of a network made up of large and small, coastal and marine areas. It would allow the Canarian and Spanish governments to comply with international agreements regarding marine conservation and management. The European Union has declared that the current network is insufficient to assure those functions and the autonomous and national governments have an obligation to create new marine protected areas.

Report: Proposal for Marine Areas of Environmental Interest–Canary Islands

More information: Canary Islands