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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Old Dominion Research Duo Helps Gabon Establish Large System of Marine Parks

By Betsy Hnath

When President Ali Bongo of Gabon announced his intention to create a series of ocean-based protected areas in the nation's waters, Old Dominion University's Sara Maxwell knew her research could provide helpful guidance.

An associate professor in biological sciences, Maxwell and her colleagues at the Wildlife Conservation Society-Gabon and University of Exeter began tagging sea turtles and using satellites to study their migratory, nesting and mating movements in the waters off the Central West Africa country in 2007.

By studying their patterns, Maxwell could determine the turtles' habitat and the times they were most vulnerable to getting caught in fishing nets. She was asked to interpret and provide the data she and her partners collected to Gabon's government.

Maxwell's first master's student, Tiffany Dawson (also an ODU undergraduate alum), developed a project looking at Gabonese olive sea turtle movements near an unstudied turtle nesting beach - one that was highly threatened because of its close proximity to a large port and lots of fishing. Her thesis, along with the research already presented by Maxwell and her partners, gave Bongo and his administration the information that was critical for their plans to move ahead with designating the parks.

"Tiffany's research was directly a part of this process. Even before she was done with her thesis, she shared data and interacted with managers charged with helping to determine potential park boundaries. The innovative work she did directly influenced the process, particularly the creation of a large protected area near the capital city of Libreville," Maxwell said.

In June Gabon announced Africa's largest-ever system of marine protected areas.

Consisting of nine new national marine parks and 11 new aquatic reserves, the new network means that, combined with the country's three existing marine parks, some 53,000 square kilometers of ocean will be protected. In all, 27 percent of Gabon's territorial waters will now be protected and the whales, sea turtles, and other marine species inhabiting them safeguarded.

"Our marine ecosystems are as rich and as precious as our better known rainforests. We had to do for the oceans what my father, the Late President Omar Bongo Ondimba, did for the forests when he created 13 national parks in 2002," President Bongo said.

This announcement comes when marine biodiversity is seriously threatened. According to United Kingdom's Independent, more than 70 percent of the world's fish stocks are either overexploited or have collapsed, and the majority of coral reefs have been damaged. Meanwhile only about four percent of oceans globally are formally protected by marine protected areas.

New Gabonese boundaries will help curtail unregulated fishing from the international fleets that exploit much of Africa's coastal waters and help secure local livelihoods by ensuring fisheries are sustained for future generations.

"The designation of the parks comes after a multi-year process where the government considered the needs of local people, and the needs of the species and habitats they were aiming to protect. Their decisions were based on the best-available and solid science - it's exciting to have been part of that process," Maxwell said.

"After almost a decade, to see the work I have been a part of used to protect the species and environment of Gabon is so rewarding. It's is a wild and beautiful place, both on land and at sea, and I am proud to know that the work I've done will help keep it that way for generations to come."

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