Development & Aid, Environment, Tierramerica

More Protection, but Not Enough, for Patagonian Sea

BUENOS AIRES, Nov 8 2010 (IPS) - Argentina has widely expanded the protected area of the Patagonian Sea, but it is less than two percent of the nation's maritime waters.

Rockhopper penguin in Isla Pingüino Park, Argentina. - Courtesy of the Argentine Administration of National Parks

Rockhopper penguin in Isla Pingüino Park, Argentina. - Courtesy of the Argentine Administration of National Parks

The British Petroleum oil spill this year in the Gulf of Mexico seems to have motivated Argentina to double the protected area of the Patagonian Sea, which is rich in petroleum — and in biodiversity.

“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 marine ecosystem, situated in the far southwest of the Atlantic Ocean, is home to a great variety of mammal and bird species, as well as mollusks and fish of commercial value.

Argentina has more than three million square kilometers of maritime waters, but just 0.5 percent of the sea was protected, without legal mechanisms and ineffective management, according to the “Synthesis of the State of Conservation of the Patagonian Sea,” published in 2008 by the Forum, which unites 10 national and international organizations.

Until 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 and already in the implementation stages, the 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 joined in 1994.

“We are quite 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,” she added.

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 of 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 meters of water with a great deal of life in it — from microscopic organisms to giant mammals, including species attractive to the fishing sector, like squid, lobster, crab, scallops and mussels, he said.

It is “extremely important” 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 lobsters, hake and, among the most spectacular wildlife, it has the Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus),” said Krapovickas.

In the area chosen for conservation — 132,000 hectares that include 140 islets — there are dolphins and bird colonies of the imperial shag, pelagic cormorant, royal tern and yellow-billed tern, and the southern giant petrel.

Tourism “is very little 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 penguin, sea lions, and various dolphin species, including Commerson's dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersonii). It is also an essential area for 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 and 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 hold a vast variety of invertebrates, sponges, cold-water corals, unique mollusks 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 sovereignty conflict of the Malvinas, or Falkland Islands.

“If a company like BP took 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.

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