Biodiversity, Environment, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

ARGENTINA: More Protection, but Not Enough, for Patagonian Sea

Marcela Valente* - IPS/IFEJ

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 12 2010 (IPS) - The BP oil spill earlier this year in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have motivated Argentina to double the protected area in the Patagonian Sea, which is rich in petroleum — and in biodiversity.

Rockhopper penguin in Isla Pingüino Park, Argentina.  Credit: Courtesy of Argentina's National Parks Administration

Rockhopper penguin in Isla Pingüino Park, Argentina. Credit: Courtesy of Argentina's National Parks Administration

“What the Gulf of Mexico spill (which began in April) showed us is that even the most modern corporations can take months to seal off a leak, and for us, that would be fatal,” said biologist Santiago Krapovickas, coordinator of the Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea.

The Patagonian Sea, part of the South Atlantic Ocean, is home to a great variety of mammal and bird species, as well as shellfish and commercially valuable fish species.

Just 0.5 percent of the more than three million square kilometres of Patagonian Sea are officially protected, but there are few resources and mechanisms to guarantee conservation in that area, which is poorly managed, according to the “Summary of the State of Conservation of the Patagonian Sea”, published in 2008 by the Forum, which brings together 10 national and international organisations.

Up to now, there was just one national coastal marine park, the Monte León, in the southern province of Santa Cruz. But on Oct. 27, at the global biodiversity summit held in Japan, Argentina’s National Parks Administration announced four new protected marine areas.

They are the Southern Patagonia Coastal Marine Park, in the province of Chubut, Isla Pingüino (Penguin Island) and Makenke parks, in Santa Cruz, and one set in the ocean, the Burdwood Bank National Marine Park, situated south of the Malvinas/Falkland Islands.

It will take two to five years to fully launch the new protected areas.

The areas will bring Argentina’s total for protected marine waters to 1,360,800 hectares, but is a long way from the goal of 10 percent set for 2020 by the Convention on Biological Diversity, which Argentina signed in 1994.

“We are lagging behind,” said journalist Flavia Broffini, with the Argentine Wildlife Foundation. “With those parks we will cover 1.5 percent, which is twice what we had under protection.”

It is not a matter of limiting or restricting the use of those areas, she explained, but rather of providing the management tools that permit biodiversity conservation over the long term.

Krapovickas believes it is essential to prevent oil spills, overfishing and bycatches of smaller fish or species caught using bottom-trawling techniques.

He said because of the volume of the sea, unlike protected land areas, the total hectares of a protected sea area are a mere detail.

There are millions of cubic metres of water with a great deal of life in each hectare — from microscopic organisms to large mammals, including species attractive to the fishing industry, like squid, lobster, crab, scallops and mussels, he pointed out.

It is “extremely important,” he said, to preserve areas where the species of economic value can recover, following the successful examples of South Africa’s De Hoop marine preserve and Chile’s Punta del Lacho reserve in the Pacific.

The Southern Patagonia Park is one of the areas of greatest diversity of the Argentine seas. “It is a nursery of lobster, hake and, among the more spectacular wildlife, the Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus),” said Krapovickas.

The area chosen for conservation — 132,000 hectares that include 140 islets — is home to dolphins as well as colonies of birds like the imperial shag, pelagic cormorant, royal tern, yellow-billed tern, and southern giant petrel.

Tourism in the area “has hardly developed, but has great potential” because of the rocky coastal landscape, intense blue seas and islands with amazing wildlife, he said.

In the Isla Pingüino protected area, with its 170,000 hectares of sea and islands, there are rockhopper penguins, sea lions, and various dolphin species, including Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii). It is also a key area in terms of preserving commercial species. “The sea there is stormy and very cold, but highly productive,” said Krapovickas.

In addition to the Makenke Park (90,000 hectares home to numerous penguin and seabird species), the Burdwood Bank is a practically unknown area, till now partially preserved as a precautionary measure.

“It’s to the east of the Isla de los Estados, south of the Malvinas archipelago, and is estimated to host a vast variety of invertebrates, sponges, cold-water corals, unique molluscs and even some new species,” Krapovickas said.

But he stressed: “We don’t have experience in this type of monitoring so far from the coast, so it will be a big challenge.”

In that zone, with its natural gas and oil fields, a portion of the Burdwood Bank is under dispute between Argentina and Britain, in the context of the conflict over the Malvinas or Falkland Islands.

“If it took a company like BP months to get the Gulf of Mexico spill under control, if that were to happen in our sea, we would have no alternative but to lose sensitive, biodiverse areas forever,” concluded the biologist.

*This story is part of a series of features on biodiversity by Inter Press Service (IPS), CGIAR/Biodiversity International, International Federation of Environmental Journalists (IFEJ), and the United Nations Environment ProgramME/Convention on Biological Diversity (UNEP/CBD) — all members of the Alliance of Communicators for Sustainable Development (

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