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Saving Waves on the Chilean Coastline 

By Lance Morgan | June 27, 2024

My first impression on visiting Topocalma wetland in Chile was how similar it looked and felt to my local stomping grounds along the Sonoma Coast of California.  All that was different was the access road and the lack of development nearby.  I thought to myself, this is probably what the California coast looked like before we built over it. Visiting my colleague, Juan Buttazoni, to witness his conservation efforts was eye-opening. I knew, as an ecologist, that both coasts are “Mediterranean” ecotypes. The wind-swept coastline and buffeting gusts felt like home. The rocky points and promontories looked familiar, the sea lions sounded similar, and the beach-cast kelp had a familiar ocean smell, yet here I was, 6,000 miles away.

Lance Morgan and Juan Buttazoni at Piedra del Viento

Our partnership with Fundación Rompientes began 6 years ago at the 5th Global Wave Conference. Juan Buttazoni, a surfer from the Chilean central coast, approached us with the idea of protecting a nearly pristine coastal area to save a local surfing spot from development. This, of course, resonates strongly with those of us who have watched the wild coast of California slowly disappear during our lifetimes. We proposed working with Juan and his group to provide technical support towards the goal of creating a marine protected area (MPA) that meets our Blue Park Standard. This standard uses the best marine science to define the characteristics that result in more fishes, healthier habitats and a more resilient ocean.  At the time, protecting a surf spot did not seem a top priority for an organization like ours focused on biodiversity, but the idea was gaining traction in many places around the world. And Juan’s enthusiasm was irrepressible.

Surf reserves are growing around the world as new conservation partnerships are forged. What is a surf reserve?  The concept is relatively straight forward; identify and protect ecosystems from development where there are surf breaks. The NGO Save the Waves is working with local surfers and groups such as ours to enshrine international waves, surf zones, and their surrounding environments as World Surfing Reserves (WSRs). These reserves safeguard these areas from the threat of development, recognizing their key environmental, cultural, and economic attributes in coastal communities. Essentially, WSRs serve as a model standard for preserving outstanding surf breaks worldwide. Our Blue Parks Director, Dr. Sarah Hameed serves as a member of Save the Waves Vision Council to help select these World Surfing Reserves.

Juan’s hard work along with his team in Chile, resulted in a MPA being designated by the Chilean government – Piedra del Viento Sanctuary.  It took a lot of persistence, and it helped that when Juan isn’t surfing, he is a lawyer working for many clients on land conservation agreements in Chile.  We coordinated with Kris Tompkins, former CEO of Patagonia and a major conservation funder in Chile, to send letters of support for Juan’s vision to the government. He secured public access to the coast and has kept developers from destroying the wetland where shorebirds congregate (including the very un-California seasonal visitors - flamingos).  He also works with a local group of traditional seaweed harvesters (the group is part of a TURF – territorial user-rights for fisheries) to maintain access for a sustainable small-scale kelp harvest that they’ve had for generations. Not only are they looking for alternatives to improve the livelihood of this small group of seaweed harvesters, but they have also begun a partnership with Chilean top chef Victoria Blamey in New York City to create a seaweed salsa that can be sold to raise funds for the community and the MPA.

Not satisfied with these accomplishments Juan has set his sights on a network of MPAs along the entire coast of central Chile. MPA networks offer a more durable strategy for several reasons, including providing a portfolio of locations that can withstand localized impacts, including accidents such as shipwrecks, or pollution spills. Not only do they contribute to biodiversity conservation, protecting a variety of marine species, but they also create connections among individual MPAs, making conservation more effective for species that move across different habitats during various life stages. Networks play a crucial role in addressing climate change as species distributions shift with elevating sea surface temperatures, changes in currents, or other unforeseen impacts, ultimately helping sustain marine ecosystems. MPA networks have the added benefit of improving fish catch by safeguarding critical habitats and allowing fish populations to recover.

Visiting the Piedra del Viento Sanctuary is the most recent step in our Blue Spark collaboration.  Our goal is to help Fundación Rompientes build on this success and expand their conservation model rooted in local community empowerment to other areas. Chile’s coast is still wild and rugged in many places, but development pressure is certain to grow in coming years. Creating a network of MPAs now, that meet the Blue Park Standard, will ensure that the development of this coastline will not come at the cost to biodiversity or traditional activities such as surfing and seaweed harvesting.