Marine Protected Areas and Tourism
Áreas Marinas Protegidas y Turismo
To protect marine ecosystems, marine protected areas ( MPAs) must often balance the interests and uses of multiple stakeholders, from fisheries and tourism industries to research and conservation interests. Successful management and implementation of policies requires stakeholder buy-in, vigilant oversight and enforcement, and community participation throughout the decision-making process to ensure regulations align with community willingness and ability to follow those rules. Otherwise, a marine protection area will be in name only.
Tourism stakeholders, particularly whale and dolphin watching excursions, are increasingly contributing to local economies and have the most to gain from protecting key habitats in MPAs, such as reproductive, calving, and feeding grounds. The eco-tourism activities, in turn, can also contribute to the protection of their marine environment. Many environmental economic studies demonstrate that visitors are willing to pay higher entrance fees if they know these fees will contribute toward the conservation of the site. Local communities can also work together to develop, implement, and enforce guidelines to ensure the sustainable use of an area, and to mitigate the impact of tourism activities on MPAs.
Throughout Latin America, there are several examples of successful MPAs that support marine conservation and local economies, and of local communities supporting these MPAs and their wildlife through collaboration and collective action.
El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve
The El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve in Mexico includes Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the first ever MPA designated to protect
marine mammals. Created in 1971, the primary goal of the MPA was to protect the mating and calving grounds of the gray whale. Today, El Vizcaino is the largest MPA in Mexico and supports a thriving local tourism industry during the whale watching months of December to April. The number of annual visitors has increased from 10,000 in 1994 to more than 25,000 today. These visitors generate over US$170,000 in economic value per year.
To ensure the integrity of this activity, the Mexican government only emits whale watching permits to a limited number of locally owned businesses for excursions across the two lagoons. The government also adopted the whale-watching guidelines described in the International Whaling Commission ( IWC) Handbook for Whale Watching and designed additional guidelines tailored to the breeding and nursing areas for gray whales. For example, only a limited number of boats may approach a friendly whale at any given time.
Tourism activities also support the conservation of the area. Each visitor is charged a reserve fee in addition to the whale watching cost, which is used to finance the maintenance of the biosphere reserve. Tourism ventures take on leadership roles in the community to promote better local standards for whale-watching and to participate in tourism councils. Others promote environmental education and programming onboard. In the San Ignacio Lagoon, an association of companies impose an even stricter set of whale watch standards through self-enforcement, such as only allowing two, instead of four, vessels near a whale at any given time. They also elect a sheriff to monitor and enforce these guidelines.
The fruits of these efforts show. Researchers and operators agree that, over time, the gray whale population is increasing. In addition, tour operators believe that the locally implemented guidelines, and the designation of the area as a MPA and Biosphere Reserve, have significantly improved the quality and organization of whale watching in the area.
In Argentina, commercial whale watching began in the 1970s, soon after Mexico. Scuba diving tour operators in Península Valdes discovered large concentrations of southern right whales during their mating and calving season of June through December. Over the next 30 years, these operators worked together to establish local guidelines and to maintain the pristine conditions of the region despite tourism development.
In 1999, Península Valdes was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its importance as a breeding ground for various
“Tourism stakeholders have the most to gain from protecting key habitats.”
marine mammals. The coastal waters of Península Valdés are a fusion of warm Brazilian and cold Antarctic currents, attracting a diversity of marine wildlife. Elephant seals, sea lions, and even penguins have breeding colonies throughout the Península. In the spring, dusky dolphins and Magellanic penguins feed in the waters off the Península. Killer whales exhibit unique hunting strategies where they strand themselves on the beaches to capture unsuspecting sea lion and elephant seal pups.
This diversity of wildlife underlies a growing tourism industry. The total number of annual tourists has grown steadily to more than 300,000 over the last decade. The majority of the visitors are Argentine nationals, demonstrating the importance of this protected area as a national resource for tourism and conservation.
Similar to El Vizcaino, tourism activities strive to support the sustainability of the site. All visitors pay an entrance fee, which contribute to the maintenance costs of the Península. Only six whale watching companies are permitted to operate, and they are limited to Puerto Piramides within the Península Valdes. These six companies work together to mitigate their impact on the whales by enforcing local guidelines and communicating with each other on the water. Each company is only allowed to have one boat in the water at a time, with some rare exceptions.
The Puerto Piramides community has also come together to prevent the construction of a pier, which would disturb the natural vista. Instead, they continue the Patagonian technique of hauling whale watching boats with tractors. Many operators are certified by the ISO and other agencies for the sustainability and responsibility of their practices. Their onboard speeches and office pamphlets strive to instill environmental responsibility in their visitors.
These two Latin American marine protection areas are successful case studies showing that collective management, and pulling the community together to work toward the sustainable use of marine and coastal ecosystems, can help enforce protection regimes in MPAs and benefit tourism at the same time.
ALISA SCHULMAN- JANIGER
A southern right whale at Puerto Piramides, Argentina. Una ballena franca austral en Puerto Piramides, Argentina. STEPHANIE STEFANSKI