Continental Shift: Marine Conservation Planning
If you were to set sail from the northernmost tip of Colombia and continue clockwise around the entire South American continent, your journey would take you through some of the most beautiful yet most threatened coastal and marine environments in the world. Priorities for Coastal and Marine Conservation Areas in South America, a landmark study led by TNC and released in 2007, finds that increased human activity along South America’s coasts is severely impacting marine habitats and could have devastating effects on the people, plants, and animals that rely on them.
With support from PiP, TNC has worked with governments and local conservation organizations in Brazil, Colombia, and Peru, which complemented non-PiP funding in Chile, Ecuador, and Venezuela, to prioritize effective coastal and marine conservation work for most of the South American continent. TNC has helped identify over 96 million acres of potential new coastal and marine protected areas; if created, these would more than double the current levels of coastal and marine protection in South America. Importantly, the relevant national agencies in each of these countries – Ministry of Environment in Brazil, CONAMA in Chile, Invemar in Colombia, Ministry of Environment in Ecuador, INRENA in Peru and the highly influential state owned Petroleos de Venezuela (part of the Ministry of Energy) in Venezuela – participated in the process and endorse the recommended areas.
South America is home to 380 million people. Their needs, multiplied by growing demand from international markets, mean more and more pressures are being heaped on the continent’s Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and Caribbean Sea. Overfishing and destructive fishing practices cause direct damage to marine and coastal ecosystems, while silt, sewage, pollution, and fertilizer run-off from farming, agriculture, and urban development also pose serious dangers to South America’s waters and the species that live there.
Many of these threats are interrelated. For example, unchecked development in coastal areas often overwhelms a country’s infrastructure, causing increases in pollution when raw sewage is pumped from an urban area directly into the sea.
Threats also often combine in surprising ways to push species already at risk to the brink. In the case of the Humboldt Penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), the species is continuously stressed by a loss of food due to overfishing, and is increasingly threatened by the effects of climate change. During El Niño events, cold north-flowing waters of the Humboldt Current are displaced by warmer waters flowing from the central Pacific, thus reducing phytoplankton, the building block of the Humboldt penguin’s food chain.
While the threats to South America’s coastal and marine environments seem daunting, the political and social will to create substantial protected areas along the coast is growing. All of South America’s coastal nations have signed the Convention on Biological Diversity and are committed to creating and strengthening systems of marine protected areas by 2012.
The PiP-sponsored study on Priorities for Coastal and Marine Conservation Areas in South America is another important step to turn the tide on coastal and marine degradation. This study also complements other PiP-sponsored assessments of terrestrial and freshwater priorities for the South American continent, providing a continent-wide, course-filter blueprint for conservation action.