The fate of our oceans, and the livelihoods that depend on them, lies squarely in our hands. Latin America, with Chile as a would-be standard bearer, can lead the way.
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As the BBC prepares for the launch of its new TV series Blue Planet II, the legendary presenter and naturalist Sir David Attenborough has taken the opportunity to warn us of the devastating impact that plastic waste is having on our oceans and marine life.
He called for greater action to curb the use and disposal of plastic in order to save our oceans, adding that filming the new instalment of the iconic series had demonstrated just how serious the situation has got.
Attenborough and camera crew were confronted with many cases of seabirds and other marine life mistakenly consuming and becoming entangled in the plastic waste that we humans have allowed to build up in the big blue.
Global action is indeed much needed: while the International Union for Conservation of Nature claims that 30% of the world’s oceans need to be protected in order to guarantee the sustainability of marine life, so far less than 2% has been officially protected. However, summits such as the recently concluded Our Ocean conference in Malta suggest that world leaders and influencers are beginning to realise what is at stake, and are starting to take action accordingly.
One country that seems prepared to lead the way is Chile, with the South American nation announcing an expansion of pre-existing marine protection areas, including one of the largest such reserves on the planet around Easter Island and the Juan Fernández archipelago, in the southern Pacific.
A blueprint for sustainable ocean management
At 740,000 square kilometres the Rapa Nui marine park, named after the traditional name for Easter Island and its original inhabitants, covers an area as large as the Chilean mainland itself, is home to more than three quarters of the Pacific Ocean’s fish abundance, and will help to protect at least 142 endemic marine species.
Industrial-scale fishing and other extractive activities will be banned within the reserve, but Rapa Nui locals will still be able to carry out their traditional fishing methods. In this way, the marine park can offer a blueprint for sustainable management of coastal and deep-sea waters, without impacting on the cultural and economic autonomy of communities which have based their livelihoods on these areas for hundreds of years or more.
Matt Rand, director of the Pew Bertarelli ocean legacy project and vocal proponent of the Rapa Nui marine park, said “this marine reserve will have a huge global significance for the conservation of oceans and of indigenous people’s ways of life”. Meanwhile, Enric Sala of Pristine Seas and National Geographic stated that “Chile is a fishing country, and most fisheries there are fully exploited or overexploited, but this government has realized that there is no future of fisheries without significant protection”.
Chile keen to look after its own coastal regions
Chile’s ambitions to lead on ocean sustainability go beyond the establishment of marine reserves. Foreign secretary Heraldo Muñoz, also speaking at the Our Oceans summit, claimed that Chile is committed to pursuing the so-called ‘blue economy’ based around sustainable management of its coastal and ocean regions, citing the many benefits that range from sustaining fish stocks to increasing tourism.
“Chile is a maritime nation, but for too long we have lived with our backs turned to the sea”, Muñoz told the conference. “The time has come to put much more effort into the ‘blue economy’”.
Chile has some of the most expansive and varied coastline in the world, stretching more than 4,000km from the Atacama desert in the north to the fjords of Patagonia and subantarctic islands around Tierra del Fuego. It draws great value from these coastal regions, with tourism and seafood exports making up some of the most important contributions to the country’s economy, after mining and forestry.
However, the country’s vulnerability to negative impacts on its marine regions was laid bare in 2016, when a mysterious but devastating ‘red tide’ algal bloom was blamed for the extermination of entire schools of fish and sealife, both farmed and wild, in the south of the country. The disaster virtually wiped out local fish populations, and the artisanal industries and local communities who depend on them for their livelihoods. Many of them may never recover.
Experts and activists are still split on whether the blame lies with the abnormally high sea temperatures brought on by climate change and a particularly strong El Niño episode, or with the actions of the region’s salmon farming industry. Greenpeace Chile and locals alleged that fishing companies operating in the area illegally dumped thousands of tons of dead and rotting fish into the sea shortly before the algal bloom struck, though industry voices deny these claims.
Clamping down on plastic pollution
Closer to shore, the government of President Michelle Bachelet also announced, earlier this year, its plans to introduce a ban on the sale and use of plastic bags in all its coastal cities. If the measure is passed, it will take effect within the next 12 months and cover more than 200 ‘cities’ (defined in Chile as any urban community with more than 5,000 inhabitants) littered along the country’s vast coastline, and impose a fine of US$300 on any individual or business caught using or distributing plastic bags.
“[This ban] will allow the public to contribute towards protecting the oceans”, President Bachelet said when unveiling the policy. “This means we will be the first country in the Americas to implement this kind of law and we urge other countries to take on this responsibility”. She added that the government will coordinate beach clear-ups during peak holiday times.
The move is significant given the extent of plastic pollution in our oceans: more than 90% of seabirds have plastic in their guts as a result of mistaking tiny fragments of plastic waste for food, while studies point to the very real possibility of there being more plastic in the oceans than fish by 2050, in terms of weight.
“The ban is fundamental to protect the oceans and their biodiversity”, says Chile’s environment minister Marcelo Mena. “It also covers the issue of rubbish management, which we must deal with in the short term, because the consequences of not acting put the preservation of these species at risk”.
Chile not alone in Latin America
Chile may be the country making waves most recently with its stated plans, but it is not alone among Latin American nations putting in the effort to preserve marine areas, both within their own national boundaries and beyond.
Last year, the governments of Colombia, Costa Rica and Ecuador announced agreements to increase protection of some of the most biodiverse ocean waters, with reserves making up the East Pacific biological corridor, linking UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Cocos, Malpelo and the Galápagos. The agreements bring the combined total area of marine reserves off the three countries to over 200,000 square kilometres, while an earlier agreement with Panama and other international groups in 2003 led to the formation of the two million square kilometre Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape.
Then, a further announcement at the Our Oceans conference in Malta heralded the creation of the Revillagigedo National Park off Mexico’s Pacific coast, set to become the largest ‘no fishing zone’ in North America, and which will be integrated into the East Pacific biological corridor.
Our oceans are essential to the future viability not just to society, but also to the planet itself: from coastal communities that depend on fishing and other activities based on the marine environment, to the oceans’ ability to sequester carbon and help us combat climate change.
Across Latin America, this is certainly the case, with the majority of the region’s population living on or near the coast. However, experts have warned that urban expansion across the continent has caused around 60% of marine ecosystems to disappear over the course of the last hundred years, as population pressures weigh on coastal areas and, in particular, mangroves.
With this in mind, and one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals dedicated entirely to the conservation and sustainable use of the world’s oceans, it is more important than ever that governments and other international institutions take action to care for the health of the marine environment. Latin America, with Chile potentially acting as a willing standard bearer, could be in a great position to lead the way.