The small island nation Seychelles just got rid of some its debt by promising to create two major marine reserves, the Guardian reports.

The nonprofit group The Nature Conservancy and famed environmentalist and actor Leonardo DiCaprio bought $22 million in debt owed to various countries in exchange for the creation of two reserves around two critical ecosystems, TNC announced.

The innovative debt-swap initiative is the first of its kind and it could lead to an explosion of similar deals around the world.

If that happens then huge swaths of ocean could be safeguarded at a time when marine environments are increasingly threatened by pollution, climate change, overfishing, and more.

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“This effort will help the people of Seychelles protect their ocean for future generations, and will serve as a model for future marine conservation projects worldwide,” DiCaprio said in a statement. “These protections mean that all species living in these waters or migrating through them are now far better shielded from overfishing, pollution, and climate change.”

Dicaprio, for his part, donated $1 million to the effort. The actor has long supported marine reserves and the conservation of coral reefs and sea creatures.

In total, the reserves cover around 81,000 square miles, an area nearly as big as Britain that’s home to extensive coral reefs and some of the rarest marine creatures in the world such as giant tortoises and sea cows, according to the nonprofit.

Read More: This Global Citizen of America Helped to Save Hawaii’s Waters. Now She’s Going Global.

Almost all human activity will be banned in the protected areas, including most forms of fishing, pollution, and extractive activities.  

Around 30% of Seychelle’s marine territory is now protected, up from .04% a few years ago, the nonprofit reports.

By 2022, the island nation will nearly bring another 80,000 square miles of ocean under full protection.

Global Citizen campaigns on the establishing marine reserves and limiting the threats to the world’s oceans. You can take action on these issues here.

Seychelles is 99% ocean and the fishing and tourism industries account for 43% of its workforce.

Read More: Fishing Companies Are Trying to Hide How Penguins Are Showing Up Dead in Their Nets

Enacting such major protections are an investment in the future that could allow coral reefs and fish populations recover, and open up new opportunities for ecotourism, the Guardian reports.  

“If the fish are protected where they are spawning, I’ve heard they will get bigger,” Graham Green, a fisherman, told the Guardian. “We need to do it if we are going to be catching fish in 20 years.

Some on the island are skeptical about how the protections will be enforced and are concerned that the new marine reserves will infringe upon local customs, the Guardian notes.

But the two new areas establish Seychelles as a leader in the realm of marine conservation.

Read More: Leonardo DiCaprio Is Giving Away $20 Million to Save the Environment

Around the world, around 5% of ocean is under protection and the UN is aiming to double this number by 2020.

For that to happen, the debt-swapping template pioneered by Seychelles could come in handy.

“In the next three to five years we could potentially do a billion dollars of these deals,” Rob Weary, senior director of product development at TNC, told the Guardian. “We have a sight line to that.”


Defend the Planet

Leonardo DiCaprio Helped Pay Off Seychelles Debt to Protect Oceans

By Joe McCarthy