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Mexico Just Created an Illinois-Sized Marine Park Off the Baja Peninsula

Baja California is Mexico’s most beautiful coastal destination. It’s home to the country’s most charming resort town. The Sea of Cortez off the peninsula’s eastern shore is the most biodiverse marine habitat on the planet, making it a top choice for divers (and safari-goers). Now, Mexico is giving us all one more reason to visit by creating the largest ocean reserve in North America.

Less than 250 miles southeast of the tip of Baja California lies the Revillagigedo Archipelago. This tiny chain consists of just four uninhabited volcanic islands, but is surrounded by some of the most pristine ocean waters in the northern hemisphere. The islands themselves are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the waters in which they lie are the foundation of an ecosystem that includes hundreds of unique plants and animals. As a home for more than 350 species of fish, dozens of shark species (including the whale shark, the world’s largest), dolphins, rays (including the manta ray, another of the world’s largest), humpback whales, sea turtles, lizards, and seabirds, it’s a bucket-list-worthy destinations — an “ocean superhighway” that’s so species-rich, it’s often referred to as the “Galapagos of North America.”

President Enrique Peña Nieto proved that he’s seeking to keep it that way. On November 24, the Mexican leader carved out a massive swath of 57,143 square miles — roughly the size of Illinois — that includes the islands as North America’s newest and largest marine reserve. The area has long been popular with fishing fleets attracted to the waters which serve as a breeding ground for some of the most commercially profitable species like sierra and tuna. Now, all commercial fishing will be prohibited within the park’s borders.

President Nieto has affirmed that his government is taking the park’s protection and its future success seriously. They’re tasking the Environment Ministry and Navy with carrying out ongoing surveillance and training activities within the reserve. They will monitor the waters in real-time to help map out and understand commercial fishing within the park, educate local fishermen, and sanction any offenders.

The park’s creation is a vital step toward helping local fish populations recover from commercial overfishing. It joins the ranks of similar reserve projects in the United Kingdom, Palau, and Chile. It’s already been widely praised by many, including the World Wildlife Fund.

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