Mapping the World's (Few) Protected Seas

Gabon and the U.S. have new marine reserves, but just a fraction of the seas is protected.

The nation of Gabon recently created a first-of-its-kind network of marine protected areas in central Africa, putting 18,000 square miles (46,600 square kilometers) of coastal water off-limits to commercial fishing. The area is home to threatened species such as great hammerhead sharks, manta rays, and whale sharks, and comes shortly after the Obama Administration announced the establishment of the largest marine reserve in the world.

The announcements from each nation were substantially supported by research and documentation from National Geographic's Pristine Seas expeditions. Working with key partners, Pristine Seas aims to explore, survey, and protect some of the last wild places in the world's oceans.

The project "looks for the wildest places in the ocean, to inspire leaders to save them before it's too late," Enric Sala, who leads the initiative, said after last week's Gabon announcement. "Gabon was probably the only such place left in West Africa."  (See pictures of Gabon's new marine sanctuary.)

Still, just over 2 percent of the world's oceans fall under some sort of official protection. "Although 71 percent of our planet is covered with salt water, we have protected much more of the land than the ocean," says David Helvarg, founder of the oceans advocacy group Blue Frontier Campaign.

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