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Coastal and marine conservation

Seas and oceans occupy about 71% of the Earth's surface. This is where life started on our planet millions of years ago. These salt water ecosystems have been the key to the establishment and development of human cultures, which depended on them for their livelihood. For many centuries, fishing and commercial shipping on seas were key factors that stimulated the growth of the economies of earlier societies on continents such as Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Many of the great civilizations established themselves on the coasts of the seas, as is the case of the Mediterranean Sea, where the ancient empires of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans flourished. Currently, large cities in the world are located directly on coasts, or on the shores of waterways that connect with the sea. In island regions, such as the Caribbean, the largest settlements are found on the coasts, and they depend mainly on the natural resources of the sea and on access to international markets through the seaway.

It is becoming increasingly known that the seas and oceans of the world serve as habitat for a wide range of ecosystems of high biological, aesthetic and productive value. There are mangroves and coral reefs, sea grass, natural communities at abyssal depths, pelagic open sea systems, and microorganisms that grow in underwater cracks of oceans. Important taxonomic groups are algae, sponges, coelenterates (jellyfish and sea anemones living in society forming colonies, such as corals), echinoderms (starfish and sea urchins), crustaceans (lobsters, crabs and shrimp), all sorts of fish, reptiles (such as sea turtles), marine birds, and mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals. Many groups of invertebrates are found exclusively in the sea. In fact, the diversity of coral reefs is so large that it can match up to the wealth of terrestrial plants and insects of tropical forests.

Major threats to the coastal-marine ecosystem
Analysis of the coastal-marine resources in the Dominican Republic
Protected Marine Areas
Sustainable use of Dominican coastal-marine resources

Major threats to the coastal-marine ecosystem

Unfortunately, in the past 50 years, seas and their coasts have suffered more and more from major threats that affect their ecological integrity. Some of the most serious threats are overfishing, pollution resulting from the dumping of waste, unplanned coastal development, and changes brought on by global warming, such as the rise in sea level and changes in circulation systems.

Overfishing, for example, threatens the continued availability of an important source of food, which much of the human population in the world depends on. As a result of overfishing schools of fish which have been depleted over time, fishing fleets, with their tremendous capacity for capture and storage, began to search for new schools to exploit, in more remote areas. As a result, the limits of sustainable use in many oceans and seas of the world have already been exceeded. This has resulted in the loss of diversity of marine species in many countries.

Now, as far as the pollution of seas goes, large amounts of garbage and waste continue to be dumped in them. Many times, waste pollutants and their harmful substances start inland and reach the sea through rivers and transmission systems. When they reach the sea, they hamper the reproduction of organisms such as crustaceans and fish, thus affecting their use as food for humans. Ultimately, the loss of coastal and marine species as a result of these anthropogenic causes clearly demonstrates that salt-water ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to human action.

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Analysis of the coastal-marine resources in the Dominican Republic

In 2009, expert Felicita Heredia, of Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo and the Environmental Team of the Academy of Sciences, presented an important study titled "Integrated coastal marine management in the Dominican Republic." In her comprehensive analysis of the coastal-marine resource and its management and conservation, Heredia reports that the Dominican coast -highly affected by human threats- has an area of 1,576 km, including islands, islets and cays, 526 km of which are on the north coast (33%), 374 km on the east coast (24%) and 675 km to the south (43%), as well as a total of 8,950 km2 of continental shelf. The study reports that the north coast shows a continuous formation of cliffs and beaches, with the presence of large estuaries and mangrove areas, while the east coast is defined by the presence of lower reliefs and long, sandy beaches. The southern coast, on the other hand, also presents extensive beach areas, small cliffs and beaches formed by floods. Located near these shores are the islands of Saona, La Catalina and Catalinita, Beata and Alto Velo. The ecosystems that are located there, which are often part of protected areas, are already highly fragmented, because violations to environmental laws are very frequent. In total, they host around 2,000 species of marine fauna, including sea anemones, sponges, jellyfish, crabs, shrimps, fish, turtles, and whales, among others.

Specialist Heredia mentions the following as major problems affecting the natural resources of the Dominican coast: 1) pollution in estuaries, coastal lagoons and the sea; 2) the privatization and prohibition of entry to beaches and coastal areas; (3) the installation of marinas and navigation canals in inappropriate places; 4) the destruction of coastal vegetation and dunes; 5) the dredging of coasts and subsequent erosion of beaches; (6) the damage to beaches and turtle nesting areas due to the use of '4x4' vehicles; 7) the injury and death of marine mammals (manatees) with the use of jet skis and boats with outboard engines; 8) the inappropriate confinement of species of marine mammals; 9) the modification of coastal landscapes as a result of the destruction of capes and other coastal profiles; (10) the extraction of materials for construction, such as sand from virgin beaches to rebuild depleted beaches, and of coral reefs for the elaboration of jewelry and other types of ornaments; (11) the destruction of sea grass beds under the pretext of cleaning the beach in touristic areas; 12) the construction of breakwaters; (13) the lack of planning in relation to the installation of infrastructure and engineering projects above the system’s carrying capacity; 14) the drying of coastal lagoons for the development of touristic infrastructure; (15) estuarine and sea overfishing, as well as the use of prohibited fishing gear, and 16) the disappearance of areas for adequate disembarking by fishermen.

Unfortunately, the need for a sustainable management and proper conservation of the biodiversity of marine and coastal waters -both in the Dominican Republic and in many other countries- has been ignored for a long time. During the 20th century, conservationists focused their attention and energy mainly on the preservation of forests, grasslands, deserts, rivers and lakes of the land portion of the planet. Fortunately, with the arrival of the 21st century, the time has come for coastal and marine conservation. There is a growing recognition of the urgency of conservation and sustainable management of the Earth’s marine resources.

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Protected Marine Areas

With this background, the 2,200 participants in the II Latin American Congress of National Parks in Bariloche, Argentina, declared the 2008-2018 period as the decade of Protected Marine Areas, during which time priority should be given to the creation of national and regional networks of protected marine areas in the region, and to the integrated management of oceans to comply with the commitments made to achieve the goals for 2012 and 2015, as defined within the framework of the Programme of Work on Protected Areas at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). In this sense, the priority is to increase, during this decade, the amount and surface of protected marine areas in the region -both in coastal zones and in high seas-, contributing to the conservation of biodiversity and marine processes, to their integrated management and to the maintenance of sustainable fisheries.

Fortunately, many countries have already made great strides in the development of protected marine area networks to safeguard the biodiversity of their salt waters, including the Dominican Republic. In this nation, the organization of the coastal-marine territory and the promotion of sustainable development in coastal areas has already begun. At present, a significant portion of the Dominican coast is already under some form of coastal-marine conservation. The most noteworthy marine protected areas are the Este National Park, the Monte Cristi National Park, the marine portion of the Jaragua National Park, and the Humpback Whale Sanctuary in Banco de la Plata.

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Sustainable use of Dominican coastal-marine resources

In addition, a current assessment of the environmental impact of activities affecting coastal and marine areas, is being conducted by the Center for Research in Marine Biology (CIBIMA) of the School of Sciences at Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD), and the Secretariat of State for Agriculture, through the Undersecretariat of Natural Resources, and its Coastal Marine Environmental Program. Since the mid 1990s, these entities have been responsible for promoting and developing the sustainable use of the Dominican coastal-marine resources, working in conjunction with non-profit, non-governmental organizations that promote the conservation of marine biodiversity through research, environmental education and the incorporation of sustainable practices for the use of marine resources.

A new model of sustainable development and coastal and marine conservation is coastal community development, a system which is already being implemented in several countries, including Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. The objective of these programs is to establish sustainable development as a fundamental principle for the use and development of coasts. The proposed inclusive work involves coastal communities, government agencies, non-governmental organizations, the main parties involved in decision-making in regards to coastal issues, the private sector and the general public, to promote training in the areas of sustainable economic development, intelligent development and conservation of coastal resources. The philosophy of an innovative program that is currently being implemented in Puerto Rico, for example, is to motivate coastal communities to preserve and protect their rich natural and coastal resources, through sustainable development. Program activities include training and instruction on new tools and technologies available on matters of planning, intelligent development, urban sprawl and sustainable economic development.

In this regard, the Center for the Conservation and Eco-development of the Samaná Bay and its Environment (CEBSE for its initials in Spanish) has been operating in the Dominican Republic since 1991, with the mission of achieving conservation and sustainable development of the natural and cultural resources of the Samaná Bay and natural areas that surround it, with the active participation of its communities. This organization seeks to improve the sustainable use of natural resources in the Samaná region, through the promotion of production models and services that improve the quality of life of the communities and minimize negative environmental and cultural impacts. This is an excellent example of how marine biotic resources along the coast of The Hispaniola can be managed and conserved, in this particular case in the very diverse northeast area of the country.

The CEBSE believes that human development and the conservation of natural resources must go hand in hand and, to this end, it requires the integration and collaborative efforts of social sectors and the state in decision-making processes and in planning and implementing these activities. This agency develops conservation and sustainable development practices in the areas of the Samaná peninsula and bay, Los Haitises National Park and the Savanna Mar-Miches coastal plain. In these regions, its three programmatic axis include: 1) sustainable development through the design and the implementation of strategies that harmonize economic development with the protection of natural and cultural resources; (2) conservation of biodiversity through research activities, to learn and improve the conservation status of species and ecosystems in danger of extinction, or those which are critical to development; and (3) community participation and environmental education that involves and empowers the community sectors which are crucial for the sustainable management of natural and cultural resources. It is expected that with this type of participatory initiatives, the future outlook of the coasts and seas of the world can be improved, especially in those countries that are extremely rich in marine flora and fauna, such as the Dominican Republic. Only in this way can we ensure a future in which coastal-marine biodiversity remains viable and provides us its many goods and services, which so many human beings depend on for their wellbeing.

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