News from Uruguay

Sea lions rely more on their whiskers than their eyes, to hunt for food whether in coastal kelp forests or far out at sea. And just 8km off the coast of Punta del Este, Uruguay, the aptly named ‘Isla de Lobos’ (Sea Lion Island) is home to the world’s greatest concentration of sea lions (Otaria flavescens) and South American fur seals (Arctocephalus australis).

Sea lions in Uruguay

The tactile world of sea lions and other pinnipeds is attuned to flow and movement. Super-sensitive whiskers can detect vibrations in the water and interpret the trails of fish that leave hydrodynamic wakes behind them as they swim.  But the duality in human attitudes towards seals and sea lions still exists. Often scapegoated and demonised in response to declines in fish stocks, they play a crucial role in the health of marine ecosystems.

A year ago, Isla de Lobos, its rocky surroundings and mussel banks, were announced as a conservation priority by the Environment Ministry – in sync with a vision for marine protected areas in Uruguay and southern Brazil promoted by the Un Solo Mar project, thanks to Oceans5 funding channelled through Gaia.

We’re currently working with local initiative Mar Azul Uruguayo and accompanying Uruguay’s government in its 2030 routemap for creating marine protected areas to protect pinnipeds and other iconic and threatened marine species, to enable fisheries to recovery, and for nature-based tourism to play a positive role in local economies.

For a country that has traditionally stood with its back to the sea, the goal of protecting 30% of territorial waters by 2030 is ambitious, and Uruguay’s Environment Ministry is rightly cautious about unrealistic and idealistic conservation targets. The growing interest in offshore hydrocarbons and windfarms are among the challenges. Marine life is also stressed by fishing pressure and emerging pathogens (such as the recent outbreak of avian flu in marine mammals which left the coast littered with dead sea lions). But like the Billy Ocean song, when the going gets tough the tough get going.

A new wave of collaboration has ignited between government authorities, scientists, academics and civil society. In September, Uruguay signed up to the Global Ocean Alliance; marine spatial planning is underway and benefitted recently from a visit by two South African experts; a process of citizen forums will soon discuss marine issues; and just this week research cooperation with Darwin200 expedition and Greenpeace have been providing underwater images and sound recordings that will contribute to opening eyes and ears to the marine life that is critical to the health of the planet.

Sea lions are naturally equipped to navigate the waters of Isla de Lobos and the southwest Atlantic – often risking entanglement in ocean trash and fishing gear – thanks to their underwater speed, elegance and those sensitive whiskers. For those leading on Uruguay’s 2030 routemap for marine protected areas, they may need to be more like sea lions! We look forward to standing with them and with ocean guardians elsewhere, in the new year and beyond.

News from Brazil

In November, we were delighted to celebrate José Truda Palazzo, one of Brazil’s leading advocates for whales, as a winner of this year’s Animal Action Awards from IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare).

José Truda Palazzo credit Andres Milessi

José Truda Palazzo credit Andres Milessi

Environmentalist, wildlife gardener and writer, Truda was inspired from a young age by one of Gaia’s first international associates, José Lutzenberger.

He first started campaigning for whales in the 1970s, when Japanese fleets were whaling in Brazilian waters, and has become an important voice for ocean governance. His lifetime’s dedication to animals and planet have led him to take on advisory roles, support government delegations and co-found many conservation organisations around Brazil and South America.

Truda has been one of the Brazil coordinators for Un Solo Mar, a three-year initiative supported by Oceans5 through Gaia, for the creation of marine protected areas in southern Brazil and Uruguay. We are also partnering on his work for shark conservation in Ilha Grande bay, south of Rio de Janeiro, with support from Sharks Conservation Fund.

Written by Fiona Wilton, Gaia’s Sacred Lands and Waters Programme Lead