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[El Desconcierto] Chilean Scientific Initiatives Highlight the Role of Whales in the Fight Against Climate Change


Smart buoys, satellite signals, and training for fishermen and naval personnel are some of the methods being used around the country, in initiatives that seek to protect whales because of their ability to sequester carbon from the atmosphere.

A whale can be as large as a bus. A body of that size is a giant container of different elements, such as carbon. When a whale dies naturally, it sinks to the bottom of the ocean and all the carbon that is stored in its body stays there for centuries. But when it is hunted or collides with a vessel and dies on the surface, that carbon is released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming.

Northern Patagonia in Chile is the most important feeding and breeding ground for the Eastern South Pacific blue whale, a unique population in the world and one that is in danger of extinction. But it is also a place of passage for thousands of vessels, mostly associated with salmon farming. In addition to the risk of collision and death, ships emit sounds that can disorient the whales and interfere with their vital functions.

It is here, in the waters of Northern Patagonia, that the first projects to highlight the whales’ ability to sequester carbon are being carried out, and ways to protect the whales are being sought out for that reason.

Whales vs. Ships

An interactive map, created by researchers at the Blue Whale Center, shows the journey of a whale that must make its way through busy shipping lanes in order to feed. Between Puerto Montt and Taitao, places favored by blue whales, there is traffic of almost 1,000 ships per day, 700 of which are a part of the aquaculture industry. In fact, the second largest salmon aquaculture industry in the world is found in Chilean Patagonia, with more than a thousand concessions located in the three southernmost regions of the country.

The Blue Whale Center, together with scientists from Universidad Austral de Chile, has been studying the behavior of whales for almost 20 years. They have developed a pioneering monitoring system in the region with satellite tracking of more than 20 whales that pass through the area. This information, cross-referenced with maritime transit data, provides information that is valuable in protecting whales.

Working along the same lines is the MERI Foundation, which plans to install a system of smart buoys in the last quarter of this year that will allow whales, their location, and their species to be identified without harming them. The technology, which will be located in Patagonia, is called Listening to the Deep-Ocean Environment (LIDO) and was developed in Catalonia by a group led by Michel André, one of the most renowned experts in acoustic whale research.

Whale alert!

The Blue Boat Initiative will generate a continuous early warning satellite system to alert vessels to the presence of whales, so that they can take concrete measures or make maneuvers to avoid collision. The project involves the Ministry of the Environment and other international organizations. Another objective of the project is to collect data on the ecosystem services provided by the local marine fauna.

The initiative arose after more than six years of expeditions to investigate the behavior and circulation of cetaceans in Northern Patagonia. In their research they have discovered that whales feed near the surface at night, a time when there is less chance of sightings. And when whales eat, they do not have the ability to react or move to avoid a collision, so this is the riskiest time.

“With this system it will be easier to establish the routes that cetaceans usually take, generating information so that vessels can not only react to an alert but also anticipate an encounter with these animals,” explained Ana María Molina, the MERI Foundation’s Executive Director.

Planning and Prevention

A large part of the effort must come from those who travel through the area, and how they can plan their routes in a better way. MERI held a series of workshops with fishermen, naval personnel, and students in Chiloé to raise awareness about the problem and the value of whales, and to teach them how to identify species, reduce ship speed, and engage in other actions that can be taken to protect marine fauna.

As a result of these workshops, a collaboration with the Castro Maritime Government was initiated and the Navy developed voluntary regulations with suggestions such as incorporating trained lookouts to identify cetacean species, notifying the authorities of sightings by radio, or establishing maximum daytime and nighttime speed limits for ships.

A key player in collision avoidance is the aquaculture industry, as it accounts for the vast majority of vessels operating in the sector. However, the industry has not yet considered the impacts of maritime traffic in its baseline studies. A National Undersecretariat of Fisheries project is currently underway, which will establish methodologies for surveying and monitoring marine mammals and will allow for the generation of protective regulations so that productive activities minimize the impact on whales.

The Value of Whales

The MERI Foundation’s Blue Boat initiative is one of the first in the world to focus on the contribution whales make to climate change mitigation. In the same spirit, together with an economist from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), a study on the economic value of the ecosystem services provided by whales was developed.

The study valued the blue whale population in Chile at between US$2.28 billion and US$3 billion, based on the services they provide, such as carbon sequestration. “Assessing the value of marine ecosystem services is critical as the economy often has a blind spot for natural resources. At the MERI Foundation, we believe that conservation decisions should be as comprehensive as possible, accepting there are environmental as well as social, cultural, and economic costs of not protecting marine and terrestrial ecosystems,” explained Ana María Molina.

Source: El Desconcierto