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A coastal wildlife oasis

Along the shore of Chile’s newly approved Piedra del Viento coastal marine sanctuary, rare Chilean flamingos wade in the flat gray shallows where the Topocalma wetlands extend toward the sea. Under the surf break, endemic setotus crabs with ruby-red eyes shuffle through swaying stands of seaweed, and where the water deepens, endangered Southern right whales rise to the surface with whistling plumes of breath.  The central coast of Chile is a biodiversity hot spot, but before Fundación Rompientes stepped in to propose a marine protected area (MPA) in the O’Higgins region, less than 1% was protected.

This 40 km2 new marine protected area, approved by Chile’s Council of Ministers for Sustainability in September 2020, encompasses sandy beaches, river mouths, lagoons, coastal dunes, giant kelp forests, and rocky seafloor—ecosystems which serve as nursery grounds for benthic and pelagic fish, nesting sites for migratory and endangered birds, and swimways for cetaceans, including the critically endangered Sei whale and the endangered bottle-necked dolphin.

While Chile has been an active player in the current world growth of marine biodiversity conservation through the creation of MPAs, the majority of the country’s MPAs have been designated in offshore waters. Piedra del Viento—the first Chilean MPA to achieve Blue Spark status—strays from this norm, encompassing vulnerable nearshore waters where wildlife is threatened by coastal development and other anthropogenic pressures.

Community care and conservation of culture

Image Courtesy of Fundacion Rompientes

When the tide is out along the shores of Piedra del Viento, you can follow wet footprints in the sand to find townspeople gathering seaweed on the beach or returning from deeper water with serpentine bundles of kelp slung across their shoulders. The locals who have harvested kelp along this coastline for hundreds of years are called algueros (algae gatherers) or orilleros (from orilla, the shore). Along the same shoreline, surfers slice across curling breakers. The O’Higgins region is home to exceptional surf breaks that are both vital nearshore ecosystems and also recreational havens. Between the artisanal algueros and the wave riders, there are two kinds of culture here; both are at risk.

Along the central coast of Chile, there is increasing demand for vacation homes. In what is now Piedra del Viento, a private real estate project blocked access to an iconic surf and seaweed-gathering beach for four years, before Fundación Rompientes collaborated with the local fishermen’s union, conservation-focused NGOs such as Puertecillo Playas Libres, surfers, and local businesses in a campaign to regain access to the sea. Similar development projects continue to threaten the central coast and create problems for local fishing communities, including difficulty accessing fishing grounds and beaches, displacement, and the endangerment of a rich socio-cultural identity.

This situation has also created environmental problems such as water pollution, biodiversity loss, and the destruction of coastal ecosystems. Fundación Rompientes—in partnership with Marine Conservation Institute, Save the Waves Coalition, Patagonia, and others—aims to raise awareness about these impacts, encourage co-management of the coast with local fishing communities, and promote sustainable recreation on the coast. For both wildlife and traditional ways of life, the approval of Piedra del Viento coastal marine sanctuary spells hope.

A trailblazing approach

Fundación Rompientes recognizes that even after a marine coastal protected area is formally established, governments often cannot provide adequate in-the-field management. For this reason, Piedra del Viento is unique in its approach to bottom-up planning within the community and its model of collaborative management.

The blueprint for the new MPA puts power in the hands of artisanal fishermen to be local stewards of coastal ecosystems, rather than relying on government managers. Fundación Rompientes aims to provide services to local communities to help them preserve their heritage through marine conservation and new business models that can coexist with artisanal fishing. Their goal is to improve the quality of life for coastal communities, increase marine biodiversity protection, and boost the recognition of waves as a valuable renewable resource.

Photo: Farias Moreno
Photo: Farias Moreno
Photo: Pablo Palma Calderon
Photo: Pablo Palma Calderon