Feb 23

Twelve percent of marine species in the tropical eastern Pacific are threatened with extinction, according to a study released this week by IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and its partners.

Photo of hawksbill turtle swimming over reef

Critically Endangered Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata) were among the marine species surveyed as part of the study

The eastern Pacific region includes the Gulf of California, the coasts of Panama and Costa Rica and the five offshore oceanic islands and archipelagos. The recent study included surveys of marine shore-fish, marine mammals, sea turtles, sea birds, corals, mangroves and seagrasses, making it the first IUCN Red List of Threatened Species assessment to survey all known species in a major marine biogeographic region.

The marine flora and fauna of the Pacific region face numerous threats, including over-fishing, habitat loss and increasing impacts from the El Niño Southern Oscillation.

Identifying conservation priorities

Resources for conservation are often limited, and the study has therefore identified specific geographic zones where conservation efforts are most needed, including around the mouth of the Gulf of California and the coastlines of Panama and Costa Rica. The analysis also identified the type and location of the greatest dangers to marine life in the region.

Photo of star column coral in coral reef habitat

Coral species were among the marine species included in the comprehensive assessment

Understanding species vulnerability to major threats is paramount for determining how species and marine environments are likely to respond to one or more simultaneous threats,” says Beth Polidoro, Research Associate, IUCN Marine Biodiversity Unit, and lead author of the study.

Identification of threatened species and patterns of threat in the tropical eastern Pacific region can help guide local and regional marine conservation priorities for biodiversity conservation, as well as serve to inform policy.”

Marine species in decline

At least 20 marine species have become globally extinct in recent years, and more than 133 local populations of marine species have followed in their footsteps. Among these local extinctions are several eastern Pacific populations of marine species.

Drastic declines have also been documented across other marine groups, including commercial fish, coral reef fish, reef-building corals, mangroves, and seagrasses.

Close-up of a black sea bass

Also known as the black sea bass, the giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas) is just one of the Critically Endangered marine species found in the eastern Pacific

One of the commercial marine species under pressure in the eastern Pacific is the giant sea bass (Stereolepis gigas), a Critically Endangered fish that was once common in the waters of southern California and the Gulf of California, Mexico. Although fishing of this species is now regulated, it was once caught in extremely large numbers and spawning aggregations were often targeted. Because of their long life span, giant sea bass have a very limited ability to cope with this severe overfishing, and are struggling to rebuild sustainable populations.

Safeguarding ocean health

Saving threatened species is the single most important thing we can do to safeguard ocean health, which benefits millions of people that depend on thriving and productive oceans,” says Scott Henderson, Regional Director of Marine Conservation at Conservation International and co-author of the study.

Photo of California sea lion swimming underwater

The California sea lion (Zalophus californianus) is found in the Gulf of California, which was surveyed as part of the IUCN study

Urgent conservation action

The findings of the new study reinforce that conservation action is needed for both marine species and the geographic areas where they are most threatened.

Creating a marine protected area around Clipperton Island in the eastern Pacific Ocean has been identified as a high priority, due to high proportions of threatened marine species that are found there. Clipperton Island is the only one of the five oceanic islands and archipelagos in the region that lacks complete governmental protection.

According to the study, other vitally important measures to safeguard species in the region include introducing legislation to limit mangrove removal from important fishery nursing grounds along the coasts of Costa Rica and Panama, as well as improving marine conservation efforts through better data collection, reporting and monitoring for both targeted and by-catch fisheries.

Explore the world’s marine species on ARKive.

Find out more about marine conservation in the Gulf of California.

Read the IUCN Press Release.

Helen Roddis, ARKive Species Text Author