'Precaution should be the new paradigm for conservation'
By Marcela Valente*
Award-winning Argentine biologist Claudio Campagna is promoting a new model for preserving the whale habitat of the Patagonian coast.
BUENOS AIRES - "We must exchange the current conservation paradigm for one that is based on the precautionary principle," Argentine biologist Claudio Campagna, expert in marine mammals of the South Atlantic, said in a dialogue with Tierramérica.
"It is unacceptable that less than one percent of the ocean is protected," said Campagna, who holds a doctorate in biology from the University of California.
Honored last week with a 150-thousand-dollar award from the University of Miami's ocean sciences institute, Campagna plans to develop this new conservation model along the coast of Argentina's southern Patagonia region through the "Sea and Sky" program.
According to the goals of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, held in 2002 in Johannesburg, South Africa, protected marine areas should be expanded by 2012. The southern Patagonian ecosystem, which extends along the entire Argentine Atlantic coast, is one of the sites to be protected.
Author of "The Whales of Patagonia", among other books on marine animals, Campagna is a researcher at the National Patagonia Center in Puerto Madryn, in the southern province of Chubut, where thousands of tourists flock each year to go on whale-watching tours.
- What makes the Patagonian marine ecosystem unique?
- The Malvinas current, associated with the unique distribution of plants and animals of the sea platform and, in particular, the continental slope, favor the development of fronts of high productivity, which sustain a rich biological diversity in this area.
- What are the main threats to the ecosystem?
- One major problem for any marine ecosystem is the illegal fishing by other countries, because it isn't regulated. The collateral effects of those fishing operations, such as the incidental catches and the discarding of species that lack commercial value, aggravate environmental deterioration. But the lack of information that would help in environmental management is another serious problem. In conservation, indifference and ignorance sustain all other problems.
- Are there "early warning" indicators for these threats?
- Indicators and monitoring of species is not a simple matter. We are applying techniques like the use of "landscape species" which permit the study of a minimum number of species whose ecological necessities encompass all the rest. This maximizes the effects of monitoring efforts. Technology allows us to study the movement of individual animals over large areas, such as sea elephants or the giant albatross, which travel thousands of kilometers and utilize areas covering hundreds of thousands of square kilometers to search for food.
- Do you think whale-watching tourism and greater awareness
about the danger of extinction are helping to slow the decline of
the whale population?
- In reality, the killing of the whale species that is the focus of the whale-watching industry ended long before this form of tourism was consolidated, and not for conservation reasons, but rather because it was no longer economically efficient to spend weeks at sea hunting for whales that no longer existed. That is how many species of sea mammals were spared. Today, international limits on whaling are beginning to have an effect on species like the southern right whale, whose population is on the rise. However, the total population is small compared to the number of whales estimated to have existed before the era of international whaling.
- In your book "The Whales of Patagonia", you say that one
"charismatic" species allows the conservation of the entire ecosystem
that sustains it. What other species are preserved by protecting
the southern right whale?
- If the area used by the whale is protected, then sea lions, fur seals, various species of penguins, part of the area used by sea elephants, giant petrels and possibly the species of fish and invertebrates that are the basis of the whole ecosystem would be preserved.
- What does the "Sea and Sky" project entail?
- The project aims to generate a simple but integrated management model for the ecosystem. It should be a dynamic model that incorporates the seasonal aspects of different phenomena and the interconnectedness of the oceans. The ocean environments need different theoretical tools than land environments. Management and monitoring standards specific to the region could be designed.
- Would this contribute towards achieving the goal of the
Johannesburg Summit, which proposes expanding the number and size
of protected marine areas?
- Undoubtedly. It is unacceptable that less than one percent of the ocean surface is protected. We must exchange the current conservation paradigm for one that is based on the precautionary principle. Currently we are a long way from being a society or having an institutional framework that is based on these ideas, which is why the project also seeks a change in discourse, in the language and the philosophy of conservation.
* Marcela Valente is an IPS correspondent.