Chilean Congress approves the Benthonic Act, their newest step in marine conservation
By Anastasia Goelitz
School of fish swimming through a kelp forest by Oliver Dodd via Flickr
The waters off the coast of Chile are vast, deep and diverse. “Since the creation of Exclusive Economic Zones, there are more mountains under the sea than above the waves in Chile,” to quote the famous marine biologist and conservationist, Sylvia Earle. The ocean here holds an incredible diversity of species and habitats, most importantly, a third of the world’s giant kelp forests.
Only two decades ago, less than 1% of Chile’s ocean had a conservation designation. Great efforts from scientists and NGOs like Oceana over the past years have resulted in the creation of many marine protected areas (MPAs) and given over 43% of the national waters some degree of legal protection.
One of these MPAs is the Pisagua Sea, where lush macroalgae forests provide a home to krill, fish and mammals, which are being protected since January 2023.
Now, another important step has been made in the country’s marine conservation journey. Just recently, the Chilean Congress approved the Benthonic Act, a law that will support the protection of the seabed and macroalgae forests, and improve the resource management in favour of local artisanal fisheries.
The vast kelp forests along the Chilean coasts provide a home for species such as sea urchins, abalones, crabs and clams, many of which are endemic (they occur nowhere else in the world) and support a wider food web. Protected by the leaves, fish can safely reproduce and grow. More than just a nursery home, these large ‘underwater trees’ are also fast-growing, making them highly productive and a globally important carbon storage.
This law, which has been five years in the making, is also a big step in a direction that Chile’s marine conservation has so far failed to take efficiently. While many of the MPAs have been created in offshore areas, very few of the coastal areas are protected to date. In a country with more than 4000 kilometres of coastline and an economy that greatly depends on fisheries, the protection of nearshore habitats is vital for securing the economic survival of many of its communities. Ecosystems near the coasts are also more vulnerable, as they are exposed to stressors like runoff pollution and recreational activities, which add on to pressures from climate change and overfishing. With the Benthonic Act, artisanal algae harvesting will be improved by recognising traditional tools and techniques used by local fishers, like diving or shoreline collection. It establishes regulations for the methods of kelp extraction, and guidelines to determine the protection of species and areas.
Chile has a strong history of involving local and indigenous communities in the sustainable management of MPAs. Around the Easter Islands, the indigenous Rapa Nui agreed to the establishment of an MPA after being granted exclusive fishing rights and are now actively involved in the management of the area. In fact, they hold the majority vote on the regulating council, which is, unfortunately, a rare occurrence for indigenous communities around the world.
In the area of Maitencillo, five artisanal fishers’ organisations, which already have exclusive harvesting rights assigned from Chile’s Areas for the Management and Exploitation of Benthic Resources (AMERB), have joined together, a communal action completely independent of institutional support or incentive. By giving up a few hectares of their already limited harvesting grounds, they created marine refuges, small ‘no take’ zones, to aid the recovery of their targeted fish stocks. Already, only seven years after the establishment of the first of these refuges, the fishers can see an increase in biodiversity and fish size, and are hoping for an even greater impact, now that more small, protected areas are close to each other.
The incorporation of artisan fishers into conservation adds valuable knowledge to planning efforts while simultaneously boosting the local economy. Many traditional fishing methods have a small impact on marine ecosystems as they only target specific species which avoids bycatch (unintentionally caught fish, which generally die after release) and removes fewer individuals from the system. The new law supports exactly this kind of effort and returns the benefits in many ways to the communities that are directly dependent on the sea. Healthy macroalgae forests support more fish, help reduce the impacts of global warming and act as buffers against storms and severe weather fronts, which increase in frequency with progressing climate change.
In many ways, Chile continues to be a shining example for marine conservation around the globe and the involvement of local and indigenous communities in sustainable management. Still, while creating strong and ambitious policies, there is yet a significant lack of enforcing agencies and subsequently, of proper enforcement of the conservation plans in the country. The Benthonic Act marks a hopeful step in the right direction. However, it will need support and involvement on all institutional and societal levels to reach its full potential.