Protecting the Ocean
PROTEGIENDO EL OCÉANO
The Pitipalena- Añihué Marine Protected Area on Chile’s southern Patagonia coast was created in 2014. And at the small village of Raúl Marín Balmaceda, population 250, the residents are filled with expectation for the years to come. They’re now bordered on land by the plush, wild nature at the new Corcovado National Park, and by sea with this extensive new marine protected area covering 238,62 km2. They are preserving this special part of the world for nature’s sake and inserting the town into the sustainable tourism industry. Everyone is involved. The town’s fishermen, some of them at first wary of restrictions on their trade, have since bought-in to the idea of regulated fishing to ensure that they have a livelihood with a future. “There has been a cultural change. There is a new way of looking at how we live together with nature,” said Rodrigo Parra, 58, director of the community’s foundation set up to co-manage the marine protected area together with Chile’s Ministry of Environment.
Just north of the PitipalenaAñihué Marine Protected Area, or MPA, Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, a marine mammal biologist and director of the Valdivia-based Blue Whale Center, has been proposing the creation of a marine and coastal protected area off the coast of Corcovado National Park and the Chiloé Archipelago since 2004. The area is an important feeding ground for the world’s largest mammal, the blue whale. In fact, some scientists speculate that in 10 to 20 years it could potentially become the last refuge for blue whales in the Southern Hemisphere. The reason? It is predicted that climate change may cause an 80 percent reduction in the krill population around
Antarctica, and the blue whale, already endangered, feeds almost entirely on the tiny krill.
Still, the challenge of creating an MPA in that area is much more complex. For one, the salmon farming industry dominates much of the Chiloé coast, bringing with it multiple environmental contamination concerns. There is also greater boat traffic in the area, including the Chilean navy, small fishermen and others. Hucke-Gaete remains optimistic, however, that one day his dream will come true. “If the MPA in Pitipalena goes well, it could be an example for other places that fear marine conservation,” he said. “Conservation is really about using resources appropriately. We must show people that it will not be bad for them, rather it will come with new opportunities.”
At the Fourth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC4) in La Serena, Chile, in September 2017 the main theme is “bringing the people and ocean together.” The international gathering, organized jointly by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and a host country every four years, will this year focus on “the intricate nature of the ocean-human relationship and the benefits of marine protected areas and the ocean for millions that depends on their ecosystem services.”
For sure, protecting the ocean yields economic, environmental, physical and spiritual benefits for people. Most importantly, half of the oxygen in the air
we breathe is produced by ocean plants. The ocean helps mitigate global warming, absorbing about a third of carbon dioxide emissions pumped into the atmosphere by people. It provides the world’s 3 billion people with almost a fifth of their protein. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that the fishing sector makes up the livelihood for about 12 percent of the world’s population. There is also great potential for tourism: in the United States, 3 out of 4 ocean economy jobs are in tourism and recreation.
Extinction is forever
The ocean is simply a vital part of the web of life. But for millennia, human societies have perceived the ocean as a vast, unlimited resource that we can take from and dump in seemingly with no end. Indeed, it is vast - covering 71 percent of our blue planet - but the world’s growing population has become ever more efficient in exploiting the ocean while consumer waste has soared in recent decades. For most of us, the sea is out of sight, out of mind, and the damage done is only visible to the extent that environmental advocates bring it into view.
The environmental news is not good. The FAO says nearly 90 percent of global fish stocks are currently either fully fished or overfished. And according to a 2015 report from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), the population of marine mammals, reptiles, birds and fish have declined by nearly half since 1970. “In the space of a single generation, human activity has severely damaged the ocean by catching fish faster than they can reproduce while also destroying their nurseries,” says Marco Lambertini, head of WWF International.
The current trends are part of what scientists believe is a “sixth great mass extinction.” Research shows that vertebrate species are disappearing 100 times faster over the past century than in any other period. A paper published in the journal Science last year about the “emerging mass extinction in
“Conservation is really about using resources appropriately. We must show people that it will not be bad for them, rather it will come with new opportunities.”
the oceans” found that large marine mammals were most at risk of going extinct and because of their greater importance to ecosystem function their possible disappearance would “disrupt ecosystems for millions of years.”
Overfishing is only part of the problem; climate change-induced ocean acidification and pollution are also degrading marine habitats and killing ocean life. The oceans help slow climate change by absorbing man-made carbon dioxide (CO2), but when the CO2 dissolves in water it forms a mild acid. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), if climate change continues apace, ocean acidification is projected to worsen by a factor of five by the end of the century. Under that scenario, shell-forming species such as oysters, shrimp, crabs, clams and lobster will likely be wiped out. The impacts of ocean acidification are already destroying coral reefs in some places.
Roger Payne, the pioneering whale expert and founder of the Ocean Alliance, calls pollution the greatest threat to whales and other marine mammals. On a research trip Payne’s organization made around the world, they collected tiny samples of skin and blubber from almost 1,000 sperm whales, from every ocean. He says they never found a whale that had less than several times the acceptable dose of mercury and lead, but more surprising was the presence of chromium. “In the Kiribati archipelago in the central Pacific, about as far from industrialization as you can get on this planet, in those remote waters
“In the space of a single generation, human activity has severely damaged the ocean by catching fish faster than they can reproduce while also destroying their nurseries.”
we found sperm whales which have more chromium in them than workers who have worked in chromium plants for 20 years and died of lung cancer that they contracted because of that work,” Payne told Patagon Journal.
About halfway between Chile and New Zealand lies Henderson Island. Seven scientists from the University of Tasmania visited this small, coral island in 2015 and discovered green toy soldiers, red hotels from the Monopoly board game, cigarette lighters, tooth brushes and so much more. The researchers counted more than 53,100 pieces of trash, almost all of it plastic. Sitting on the edge of an ocean current that picks up trash called the Southern Gyre, the uninhabited island was declared a World Heritage site in 1988 because of its pristine state and four endemic bird species. Now, it’s a monument to our world’s runaway, careless overuse of disposable plastics.
The issue of plastics is a full-bore crisis. According to a 2016 report by the World Economic Forum, if current trends hold, in 2050 there will more plastic than fish by weight in the ocean. The toxic plastics don’t just wash ashore to places like Henderson Island, but some of it breaks down into tiny fragments called microplastics. NOAA has found that at least 100 species of fish are consuming the microplastics, which eventually make their way up the food chain to people. Meantime, Belgium’s Ghent University finds that regular seafood eaters in Europe are currently ingesting up to 11,000 microplastics a year.
Marine Protected Areas
While the state of the oceans is grim, the good news is that over the past few years we have seen major steps forward in advancing marine protected areas around the world. According to the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), more than 10 percent of the ocean will be in marine protected areas by 2020, thereby surpassing the accord’s Aichi Targets.
The most impressive achievement to date was in October 2016, when 24 countries agreed to protect 1.55 million km2 of the Ross Sea around Antarctica – that’s more than 3 times the size of France - with 72 percent of that in “no-take” zones in which all types of fishing are banned for the next 35 years. Scientists have called this stretch of ocean “the least altered marine ecosystem on Earth,” with significant populations of minke and killer whales, Adele and emperor penguins, leopard seals, and some 16,000 other species.
That said, the Pew Charitable Trusts say the next step must be establishing a network of largescale marine protected areas in other vulnerable areas throughout the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica, beginning with proposed MPAs for the Weddell Sea, East Antarctica and West Antarctic Peninsula. Home to 15 percent of the global ocean, the Southern Ocean is ecologically important not only for its pristine conditions and
thousands of species found nowhere else, but also because it produces about three-fourths of the nutrients necessary to sustain life in the rest of the world’s oceans.
Just prior to the Ross Sea announcement, in August 2016, ex-U.S. President Barack Obama created what at that time was the largest MPA worldwide, by quadrupling in size the existing Papahãnaumokuãkea Marine National Monument of the Hawaiian Islands to 1,510,000 km2. That said, Obama’s presidential decree is now under review by the government of U.S. Presi-
“Chile is now among the top 5 countries in the world for total ocean area under some form of protection.”
Photos / Fotos: The Gulf of Corcovado in southern Chile is a refuge for the great blue whale and numerous other marine species, such as the endemic Chilean dolphin. El Golfo de Corcovado, en el sur de Chile, es un refugio para la gran ballena azul y numerosas otras especies marinas, como el delfín chileno.
Researchers counted more than 53,100 pieces of trash, almost all of it plastic, on Henderson Island in the southern Pacific. Investigadores encontraron más de 53.100 piezas de basura, casi todo de plástico, en la isla de Henderson, en el Pacífico Sur.
Above / Arriba: Penguins in the Ross Sea of Antarctica, which is now the home of the largest marine protected area in the world. Pingüinos en el Mar de Ross en la Antártida, en la que ahora es la mayor área marina protegida del mundo. Far right / Derecha arriba: Endangered Hawaiian monk seal at Papahãnaumokuãkea Marine National Monument of the Hawaiian Islands. Una foca monje de Hawái, una especie en peligro de extinción, en el Monumento Nacional Marina de Papahãnaumokuãkea de las islas Hawaianas.