Gaia is a partner with OCC (Organisation for Cetacean Conservation) in Uruguay, who are leading a campaign for healthy oceans (Oceanosanos), marine conservation, and putting a halt to the devastating impact of illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing in the Southern Atlantic. Gaia’s Fiona Wilton works closely with OCC in Uruguay, where she lives.

The following article, featuring OCC’s work, was originally published on the 28th of October by Mission Blue.

Photo credit: Rodrigo Garcia Pingaro/OCC 2014

“The deep, blue waters off the southeastern coast of Uruguay are a magnificent sight to behold: more than 30 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises call this area home, and are a wonder to those lucky enough to witness them gliding through the cresting waves, breaching from the water and blowing their holes. The Uruguayan Sanctuary for Whales and Dolphins is a one-of-a-kind ecosystem that hosts thousands of species from cetaceans to seals, sea lions, fish and seabirds, several of which are critically endangered.

The Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary of Uruguay has been declared a Hope Spot by international nonprofit Mission Blue in recognition of its value as a safe haven for cetaceans, to establish an enforceable policy to thoroughly manage and protect the sanctuary and to educate the public about the negative effects of “ocean noise” on marine life created by oil drilling, shipping and seismic testing.

In 2013, the Uruguayan parliament voted unanimously to turn Uruguay’s waters into a protected area for whales and dolphins with the goal of allowing the declining numbers of several species a chance to steadily recover. Brazil and Uruguay worked together to protect Southern Right Whale nurseries, a fruitful effort that resulted in a population now considered to be healthy, with 10,000 worldwide today. The public has been active in conservation efforts; the Uruguayan government has outlawed whaling, and members of the community report suspected illegal fishing practices. However, further conservation efforts have proven to be difficult without established laws and regulations in place to protect the sanctuary. At present, 102 species that live in this area are threatened, vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered and face threats from unsustainable fishing practices, pollution, increased shipping traffic, and perhaps the least acknowledged, negative effects from seismic testing also known as “ocean noise”.

Rodrigo Garcia Pingaro, Hope Spot Champion and Director of Conservation of Cetaceans, OCC – Uruguay explains, “We’re seeing major threats from human-produced noise pollution, which has already been shown to affect wildlife populations. There’s a gap of public knowledge surrounding this issue. Oil drilling and seismic testing prevents cetacean populations from recovering because it interferes with how they communicate with each other – they speak to each other to find mates via underwater sound waves.”

Photo credit: Rodrigo Garcia Pingaro/OCC 2015

The sanctuary receives the convergence of two big ocean currents, a warm ocean current coming from Brazil and a cold current from Malvinas that combine to produce a singular hydrographic system with the major estuary of the Rio de la Plata. This creates one of the most productive aquatic systems in the world, supporting the spawning and nursing of many demersal fish and sustaining several artisanal and industrial fisheries. The sanctuary is a precious ecosystem with thousands of migratory species and provides a habitat for whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, fish and seabirds. Six species in the area are listed as critically endangered, 19 as endangered, 47 as vulnerable and 30 as near threatened in this region.

Ship strikes have threatened whale populations, most directly the Southern Right Whale – there have been nine reports in six years of Southern Right Whale strikes. Limiting shipping traffic would likely result in fewer cetacean deaths and support population growth, as well as reduce the harmful man-made noise it creates. There are several successful Marine Protected Areas surrounding the coasts of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay that are adjacent to the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary, and stakeholders hope that protection expanded to the sanctuary would allow for these sensitive species to recover.

An enforceable set of laws can create a comprehensive approach to the threats that local marine life face. In Uruguay, 90% of fisheries resources are in full exploitation or overfished and only 10% remain that are under-exploited (INFOPESCA 2001, GEO Environmental Report 2008, Defeo et al., 2007).

Throughout the last decade, OCC-Uruguay has worked to establish both the legislative foundations, inter-institutional and public support necessary for change. Students are involved in the activism, and OCC-Uruguay is hard at work to prepare the next generation to uphold conservation efforts and to pass on the knowledge of the dire need to protect these endangered species before it’s too late.

“I founded OCC-Uruguay in 2000 during my studies after myself and my peers recognized the desperate need to protect the endangered Southern Right Whale,” explains Rodrigo Garcia Pingaro. “I discovered that at the time, there was no available research or citizen awareness about this species. We witnessed the threats they experienced here and we knew we needed to begin conservation efforts immediately. Seeing their improved numbers over the last several years gives us hope that official protection will have the same effect on the multitude of populations in the sanctuary.”

“In establishing the Sanctuary, we’ve obtained several achievements in mitigating various impacts and in the appropriation of citizenship and empowerment towards ocean conservation”, Rodrigo continues. “Now we need to strengthen measures to avoid collisions with whales, avoid seismic in certain areas and go further in addressing the problem of depleted fisheries, the basis of sustenance of biodiversity in the Sanctuary. Our next move is to propose new “offshore Marine Protected Areas” in the Hope Spot. We sincerely thank everyone involved for their unconditional support, especially Mission Blue,” Rodrigo Garcia Pingaro explains.

Photo credit: Rodrigo Garcia Pingaro/OCC 2015

OCC – Uruguay and Earth Law Center have partnered together to campaign for the protection of the Sanctuary using a rights of nature legal framework, including public introduction and the proposal to declare Legal Rights for the Sanctuary. The petition is outlined and can be signed here.

“The Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary of Uruguay is a wonderful example of people coming together and recognizing what needs to be done to protect the ocean,” says Dr. Sylvia Earle, Founder of Mission Blue. She continues, “We have the framework to enhance the conservation status of the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary, and the time has come to officially protect the fragile life that inhabits it.”

Fiona Wilton, Programme Coordinator at The Gaia Foundation (OCC-Uruguay partner) adds, “From oil spills and shipping discharges, to toxic runoff and the scourge of plastics, our oceans are under a growing assault from human activity. It’s time for a wave of change, and we applaud the innovative work of OCC in establishing Uruguay’s coastal waters as a sanctuary for whales and dolphin. This recognition by Mission Blue is hope indeed for the expansion of marine protected areas by Uruguay, and a boost for OCC’s healthy oceans campaign.”

The community has already seen recovered populations of the Southern Right Whale from conservation efforts currently in action, and Mission Blue enthusiastically supports the expanded protection of Uruguay’s waters and the cetaceans that call them home. The Uruguayan waters are a highly bio-diverse melting pot and scientists believe that official protection of the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary will in turn protect the entire ecosystem. A healthy future for Uruguay’s marine life is on the horizon – we just need to take the plunge.”