“It’s been a long process,” says Richard Malonga. “This is the first experience of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) for the government in Congo. It wasn’t easy to create them. But we’re very happy.” Created with the support of the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), local NGO Renatura and other partners, the government’s Congo Marine initiative has targeted areas with high biodiversity and marine vegetation, including globally important feeding and nesting grounds for sea turtles. Congo’s ocean is also home to the world’s largest fish, the endangered whale shark, and many other species of sharks and rays, many of them facing threats to their existence, including the shortfin mako shark, the Atlantic humpback dolphin, and the African wedgefish. It’s also a critical migrating and breeding habitat for large marine mammals, including the Atlantic humpback whale.
The three offshore MPAs are just the start. Another eight sites have been identified, taking the total number of MPAs in Congo’s EEZ to 11. The Republic of the Congo, also known as Congo-Brazzaville or just Congo (not to be mistaken with the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or DRC) is on the west coast of Central Africa, bordering Gabon, DRC, Cameroon and the Central African Republic. A large, sparsely populated country (342,000km2), about the same size as Germany or Japan, Congo only has a small, 169-kilometre strip of coast, looking out onto the South Atlantic ocean, which comes under heavy pressure from commercial interests.
“There is human activity everywhere in Congo’s EEZ (a band of 200 nautical miles extending from a country’s shore, which each country owns the rights to),” says Malonga, WCS Country Director in Congo, who has helped drive the MPA process. “We have oil companies exploring to find oil. We have big fishing companies fishing in the area. We have transportation and large cargo boats using these waters. Everybody is using this small area. We had to work hard to find the areas with high biodiversity to say ‘This is a good area to make a protected area’.” “We now have more than 12% of Congo’s EEZ protected with MPAs,” he adds. “It’s a big decision. With the other eight sites we identified, which is now down to the government, that would protect almost 17% of the EEZ. If you combine it with the protected forest and savanna areas on land, Congo will meet its goal to protect more than 30% of the country.”
Congo’s MPA process has taken five years so far. The first meetings were held in 2017 with the Ministry of Forest Economy, which is in charge of Congo’s protected areas. It approved the creation of a national Marine Spatial Plan (MSP) in 2019. It’s a positive step by the Congolese government, particularly given the need to utilise the ocean to support its population. According to the World Bank, more than half (53.9%) of Congo’s population of 5.7 million people live in extreme poverty. Oil accounts for more than half of the country’s GDP. Industrial fishing is another big earner. “It was difficult to convince the government because they rely on activities such as fishing and oil to have some money for the country,” explains Malonga. “It was hard to explain, because they don’t have any experience of MPAs, but in the end the government understood that it’s very important to protect some of these areas.”
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