Oceans are our lifeline: Covering more than 70 percent of the Earth's surface, they provide countless benefits to people and wildlife around the world. They produce more than half of the oxygen in our atmosphere, regulate our climate and weather patterns, give us transportation routes, income, and recreation opportunities, and are a critical source for food, medicine, and other materials we rely upon every day.

Today, more than half of the world’s major marine ecosystems that are important to human livelihoods have been degraded or are being used unsustainably. Illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing represents a big part of the problem, affecting not only ocean ecosystems and marine biodiversity, but also the economic well-being and food security of countless people.

Above, left: Artisanal fishing represents an important source of protein and income to many people along Central Africa's coastline. Above, right: Women play an important role in transporting the fish to market and selling it. Below, right: A sample catch. Photos: Heidi Ruffler / ZSL
Above, left: Artisanal fishing represents an important source of protein and income to many people along Central Africa's coastline. Above, right: Women play an important role in transporting the fish to market and selling it. Below, right: A sample catch. Photos: Heidi Ruffler / ZSL

Our Work in Gabon

Humpback whale off the coast of Gabon.
Photo credit: janhamlet / Creative Commons license
Humpback whale off the coast of Gabon.
Photo credit: janhamlet / Creative Commons license

Gabon is home to one of the world's most productive marine ecosystems. Its waters provide habitat for 20 species of whales and dolphins (including humpback whales and Atlantic humpback dolphins), African manatees, the largest breeding populations of leatherback and olive ridley sea turtles, and important fish species. Gabon's coastline has a low human population density. Until recently, its marine life was threatened by IUU fishing involving both large-scale industrial vessels to supply foreign markets, as well as small-scale, artisanal fishing boats. Illegally operating trawler vessels also represented a problem for Gabon's offshore oil industry, which represents a major component of the country's economy, by damaging equipment and infrastructure.

In 2012, Gabon made a long-term commitment to the protection and management of its marine ecosystems and species through the creation of Gabon Bleu ("Blue Gabon"). This national initiative recognizes the need to balance industrial development with long-term sustainable use of the country's natural resources and biodiversity conservation. It works towards a sustainable fisheries that collaborates with the petroleum industry and with local communities on coastal and marine resource management. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Gabon's national parks agency (ANPN) spearheaded and continues to lead this innovative program in coordination with the Gabonese Navy and Gabon's national fisheries agency.

The establishment of a new Marine Protected Area (MPA) network in Gabon - the first of its kind in Central Africa - was announced by Gabon's President, Ali Bongo Ondimba, at the World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia in 2014. The 10 marine parks, covering approximately 23 percent of Gabon's Territorial Seas and Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), complemented Gabon's terrestrial protected area system with 13 national parks created in 2002.

Gabon Bleu has had remarkable success in deterring IUU fishing. The political will and determination to achieve the goals of the program have grown, fueled by its early success and by the support of its diverse stakeholders, which range from local communities and non-governmental organizations to offshore oil companies.

Now, the Gabonese government is taking its marine conservation leadership one step further. At the United Nations Oceans Conference in New York in June 2017, Gabon's President announced an expansion of the country's MPA network. The additional nine new marine parks and 11 new aquatic reserves will bring Gabon's MPA network to a total of 53,000 square kilometers, just over 26 percent of its Territorial Seas and EEZ.

The richness of Gabon's biodiversity, both marine and terrestrial, is unique. What really sets Gabon apart, however, is the tremendous political will and foresight that underlies its conservation efforts for terrestrial and marine species and the habitats and ecosystems they - and we - depend upon. Gabon's growing MPA network may well serve as a model not only for Africa, but for the world at large to curb illegal fishing and protect marine resources for future generations.

Leaders of the Gabon Bleu program inspect a fishing boat off the Gabonese coast.
Photo credit: Bill Kanapaux / USFWS
Leaders of the Gabon Bleu program inspect a fishing boat off the Gabonese coast.
Photo credit: Bill Kanapaux / USFWS