Securing Chile's future
Located in the Tarapacá region of northern Chile, a new Marine Protected Area covering 73,500 hectares has become the first and largest marine conservation area in northern Chile. But in a country known for its large-scale mining projects, the mission to protect Chile’s ocean is far from over.
This is something we’ve been longing for for a long time,” says Sergio Barraza, president of the Artisanal Fishers Union 2, based in the Pacific Ocean town of Pisagua in Chile. He’s talking about the Pisagua Sea Multi-Use Coastal Marine Protected Area (MPA), announced by the Chilean government last year. The Pisagua Sea is home to large schools of jack mackerel and anchovies, important fish stocks in Chile that are often caught by industrial fishing fleets. The area also has an abundance of phytoplankton and crustaceans and large dense underwater algae forests, making it a vital reproduction area for fish, mammals, and birds, from sea lions to the endangered Humboldt penguin.
But rather than blocking all human activity, the new MPA is the first in Chile that allows responsible, sustainable fishing by local communities. By protecting the fishery resources from industrial fishing and destructive industrial mining development, the MPA will secure food sources and livelihoods for local people now and into the future. “We need the protection of this area for artisanal fishers,” Barraza explains. “Industrial fishing and its fishing gear harms the resources, which is detrimental to us, so the creation of this new MPA is one of the best measures ever taken.”
The coastal town of Pisagua once served as an important port for the export of saltpetre or potassium nitrate, a chemical compound often used as a mineral fertiliser or an oxidiser for fireworks and rockets. Today, the main economic activity is artisanal fishing. In recent years, there has also been an increase in tourism, focused around scuba diving.
The Chilean government created the Pisagua Sea MPA because of “its valuable marine biodiversity”, according to marine biologist Jadhiel Godoy, regional manager of natural resources and biodiversity at the Ministry of the Environment in Tarapacá. “Since the area is within the Humboldtian ecoregion, part of the Humboldt Current System, it’s characterised by high productivity, with high biomasses of fish, seabirds, marine mammals and macroalgae forests, which provide shelter and food for fish and invertebrates. It also plays a fundamental role in controlling climate change, as important ‘carbon sinks’.” Local people were central to the creation process. “The idea of creating an MPA was born from the fishermen and the community of Pisagua to protect their coast from threats, such as the extraction of algae or the entry of purse seiners (large floating nets used by industrial boats to surround shoals of fish) within the exclusive zone for artisanal fishing,” explains Godoy.
Striking a balance between the urgent need to protect oceans and the economic prosperity of a country’s citizens is a challenge in Chile, as elsewhere around the world. “In the Tarapacá region, artisanal and industrial fishing have existed for decades,” Godoy tells me. “Industrial fishing was an economic engine until the 1980s. But the need to conserve fisheries and the biodiversity of the region have become more important in the last few years. The exploitation of marine resources, the use of the coastline, and the effects of climate change helped create awareness of this need to conserve today for the future.”
“The community of Pisagua has high expectations of the benefits and new opportunities the creation of the MPA will bring, such as tourism,” he adds. The creation of the Pisagua Sea MPA was based on recommendations from ocean conversation non-profit organisation Oceana, which works to protect marine ecosystems around the world. “The Pisagua Bay is still a pristine ecosystem and hasn’t been damaged by industrial fishing. This is why Oceana decided to promote the protection of this area,” says Liesbeth van der Meer, vice president of Oceana in Chile. “As Pisagua is located in the industrial mining district of Chile, the main threat was the construction of ‘mega ports’ and desalination plants.”
Little was known about the ocean in this part of Chile until Oceana and the Universidad Arturo Prat conducted four expeditions to Pisagua over the last five years. “Pisagua was well-known for the richness of pelagic fisheries but little was known about its ecosystem and why this area was so productive,” van der Meer explains. Chile’s most important commercial fish – anchovies – release their eggs in the region. “We started to study the reasons behind the thriving of anchoveta. Anchoveta is nearly at the bottom of the food chain, which means it is food for larger species, such as sea lions, sea birds, and whales. Anchoveta also needs macroalgae forests to spawn. When we have balanced ecosystems, fisheries are abundant, and that explains the diversity of marine life in some areas of northern Chile.
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