We’re proud to bring you this guest blog post from Sebastian Nicholls.
“WE’RE TALKING ABOUT TERRAFORMING MARS WHILE WE MARS-IFY EARTH”
Imagine a land, at the tip of a continent, where the rugged coastline cuts into the ocean like a curved dagger, and the whales sing a different tongue. A land whose ferocious natives resisted invasion after invasion attempted by Europeans, but for a brief hiatus accepted a French lawyer and adventurer as their king. This land of myth and adventure, where Sir Francis Drake reported seeing giants, caught the attention of even the worldliest travelers of old. Darwin, upon landing there in December of 1833, wrote “The first landing in any new country is very interesting, and especially when, as in this case, the whole aspect bears the stamp of a marked and individual character.”
The southern stretch of the American continent—known now because of its namesake outdoor brand—Patagonia, is still wild, but under threat. This past week, Mission Blue Founder and National Geographic Explorer Sylvia Earle, Marine Biologists including the Chilean Rodrigo Hucke and Callum Roberts, and Principal Officer of International Programs for PEW Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Maximiliano Bello spoke at Chile’s Future Congress about the importance of conserving natural resources in that picturesque corner of our planet. The national forum, which showcases, ideas, people, conversations, and encounters that have the power to change the world included talks by the ocean conservation luminaries on the stage in Valdivia. There, conversations centered around the future of the Región de Los Rios, one of the northernmost territories within the Chilean Patagonia.
The forum’s themes appear to have made an impact: last week, two new marine protected areas (MPAs) were approved by Chile’s Council of Ministers, adding a total of 420,000 square kilometers of protected sea to Chile’s coast. Marcelo Mena, Chile’s environmental Minister, noted “after the approval Monday, Chile has reached 44% of its exclusive economic zone protected, which corresponds to double the national land area.” The new protections, if implemented, would make Chile the first nation to protect over 30% of its marine jurisdiction, the threshold recommended by scientists for conserving biodiversity and maintaining the key ecosystem services provided by the sea. One of the new MPAs—the Juan Fernandez Islands—is a Mission Blue Hope Spot.
Both approved MPAs fall within Chile’s Patagonia. Dr. Earle and Mr. Bello have deep ties to the region. Sylvia Earle first came to the region on a marine biology expedition in 1965, when, she noted “the ocean was more pristine, there were more fish.” Bello established a center in Valdivia in 2000 for research on and conservation of blue whales, and there, launched the first efforts for establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) along the southern Chilean coast. Both expressed that the resources and wonders beneath the waves need protection. “Since the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones, there are more mountains under the sea than above the waves in Chile” Earle noted at Valdivia January 15th. “Chile is one of the best examples of a fully interconnected ecosystem” Bello added, “southern Chile is a mega-estuary. The inside of the fjords is like a connected lake…We need to protect what we have.” The region’s unique biome has earned it a recognition as the Chiloé Hope Spot—one of five Hope Spots within Chilean waters.
Colorful houses on stilts line the coastlines of Chiloé to the south of Valdivia. They look fragile and precarious; structures held by thin beams—toothpicks at a distance. Dr. Earle’s and Mr. Bello’s remarks described the region’s fragility, that its ecological health is as fragile as those houses—palafitos, as they’re known locally—look. And the wildlife is as beautiful. On a night hike while in Southern Chile, they saw a puma “with emerald eyes,” a reminder that the region is still wild. Bello noted in his address, “there are few places where we can come face to face with wildlife.”
The ocean is no exception: “Less than 3% of bluefin tuna is left,” Earle extolled, “we don’t have a sustainable balance.” In Chile, historically, 4 million tons of mackerel have been fished. Now, in a good year, 500,000 tons are caught in the whole Pacific Ocean. These figures, shared by Bello, illustrate the stark state of the world’s oceans. He added, “most of the world’s seas are overfished…that type of ‘growth’ is not good for anyone.” Earle had emphasized the same point: “We don’t think about the cost; but what we lose is priceless.” Earle’s message of hope and urgency resonated with Minister Mena, who shared a picture with Earle receiving her new book Blue Hope on January 16th with the caption: “What a privilege to be able to share reflections about marine conservation with Sylvia Earle.”
Recently, marine biologist Susannah Buchan, whom Bello invited to work in the Center for Blue Whales ten years ago, discovered that the song of whales in Chile’s Patagonian waters is distinct from the songs of Antarctic blue whales and California blue whales. The whales, singing in what she has termed the ‘Chilean song’ are the 10th distinct population of blue whale discovered. Buchan’s science indicates the population uses Chilean waters not only for feeding but also for the beginning of mating rituals—whale flirting.
Flirtatious Chilean whales, are an emblem of hope for the region. “There are more whales today” Earle noted, than when she first visited the region in 1965 “because we changed our behavior.” Though the salmon industry lobby thwarted Bello’s MPA efforts before, he was similarly optimistic. When his parents raised him, there were fewer whales too—the population was overexploited, as is the case with fish today. But Bello is convinced “Even the fishing industry has understood that it is necessary to protect more.”
“With our knowledge, we can understand that everything is connected.” Earle had said at Valdivia on Monday January 15th. The world’s production of oxygen and absorption of CO2 mainly occurs in the ocean, and, as the palafitos south of Valdivia rest on precarious looking stilts, so does the marine ecosystem rest on a delicate ecological balance. But Chile has made progress in the past years, with large MPAs established around Easter Island, the Nazca-Desventuradas Islands, and more being proposed still.
On Monday, Chile took a major stride to restore ocean health. Bello’s work now includes traveling the world to meet with leaders—Presidents, Ministers, Senators—and his experiences have kindled hope. “I get to meet with leaders from around the world…and I want to tell you, there is a bright beacon of hope. The leaders of our planet understand it is necessary and important to protect the sea. I think today, we can make a change.” President Bachelet and Minister Mena’s leadership brought new protections to critical biodiversity hotspots which create new hope for the ocean’s future. In so doing, they strengthened the foundations of the ocean ecosystem that supports thousands of species, and livelihoods in Chile. The fragile support beams of marine ecology, which sustain life on Earth, gained a much-needed reinforcement.