A Chilean combtooth blenny (Hypsoblennius sordidus). Image courtesy of Rodrigo Sánchez Grez/Fundación Capital Azul.

Chili - Fishing communities create marine refuges to protect Chile’s biodiversity

In Chile’s Valparaíso region, artisanal fishers have created grassroots marine reserves to protect marine biodiversity. The areas are small, some of them just 15 hectares (37 acres) in size, but they provide a haven for marine creatures to grow and reproduce.

  • This growth can contribute to regenerating coastal biodiversity, making the region more resilient to climate change, while the fisherfolk can benefit from a greater availability of resources in the long term.

Protecting the oceans is crucial to societies’ survival because, as the United Nations has recognized, they “drive the global systems that make the Earth a habitable place for humans.” The world’s oceans regulate the climate, provide rainfall, produce oxygen, and are the main source of protein for more than a third of the global population: more than 3 billion people around the globe depend on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods. Oceans also absorb more than 90% of the excess heat due to climate change, and a quarter of human carbon dioxide emissions, so they are also essential to stabilizing the planet’s climate.

So far, though, humanity’s increasing carbon dioxide emissions have affected the health of the oceans by warming and acidifying seawater. The U.N. says this has not only “led to dire changes for life underwater and on land,” but also “reduced the ocean’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide and protect life on the planet.”

In this scenario, coastal waters are the hardest hit, since nearshore pollution compounds climate change stressors. Small-scale fisheries are located closer to the coast and are therefore the most affected. According to the U.N., “Without concerted efforts, coastal eutrophication” — the increase in inorganic nutrients from human activities, which causes accelerated algal growth, among other things — “is expected to increase in 20 percent of large marine ecosystems by 2050.”

To address the problem, the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals include creating effectively managed marine protected areas. In Chile, artisanal fishers from five communities have decided to help this global effort by protecting areas of the sea where they have historically fished and harvested shellfish.

The importance of marine protected areas

Why are marine protected areas crucial for mitigating the effects of climate change? Marine biologist Daniela Díaz recently addressed this question in a seminar titled “Ocean, Climate Change and Marine Protected Areas” that included officials from Chile’s National Fisheries Service (Sernapesca), the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Subpesca), and the Ministry of the Environment (MMA).

“Climate change is a stressor that will obviously have worse impacts on those areas that are already affected by other activities,” Díaz said. Marine protected areas (MPAs), being protected from pressures such as fishing, allow the populations of species that inhabit them to be healthy in terms of biomass, diversity and reproductive capacity, and this, in turn, makes them more resistant to adverse effects such as those caused by climate change.

“Populations in marine protected areas are more resilient to abrupt changes like heat waves or physical disturbances, for example, as well as the long-term effects of climate change,” Díaz said.

More than 40% of Chile’s maritime territory is under some category of protection, making it the Latin American country that conserves the largest amount of its waters. However, almost all the protected areas are located far from the coast, around islands like Robinson Crusoe, Desventuradas or Rapa Nui (also known as Easter Island). Meanwhile, along the mainland coast, “between Arica and Puerto Montt, which is where most of Chile’s population lives, the marine protected areas that exist represent less than 1% of the protected seas,” said Rodrigo Sánchez, executive director of marine conservation nonprofit Fundación Capital Azul.

Scientists and conservationists agree on the urgency of protecting the coastal region because it’s where people live and where fishing, aquaculture, tourism, shipping and other activities take place. In other words, “it is key to protect where we’re having the most impact,” said Sánchez, who has also been a diving instructor for 15 years and has witnessed “the deterioration of the coastal area.”

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