The blue whale, the largest mammal of all.
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A New Home for the Blue Whale
By Daniela Estrada
A new refuge is in the works for the world's largest mammal. Supporting the initiative to establish a protected marine area in southern Chile are two multimillionaires with investments in the region.
SANTIAGO, (Tierramérica).- - The Gulf of Corcovado, which is the southern Chilean home five months of the year to hundreds of blue whales seeking food, will soon be a protected marine and coastal zone.
The blue whale is the largest mammal in the world -- it can surpass 30 meters in length -- and is still considered in danger of extinction, because the whaling industry has reduced its population to three percent of its former total in the southern hemisphere.
A group of scientists began observing this whale species in 1999 in the seas along the island of Chiloé and the Gulf of Corcovado, in the 10th and 11th regions of Chile, 1,000 km south of Santiago.
According to the latest research, these giant mammals arrive there with their young in February to feed on krill, an abundant crustacean in the area, and then leave the Chilean coast in June and July.
This discovery contradicts the traditional scientific assumptions that the blue whale (balaenoptera musculus) migrates in the summer towards the poles to feed, and in the winter to the tropics to give birth to their young and to mate.
Seen as a finding of global importance, the regional environmental commission of Los Lagos, the Southern University of Chile, and the Blue Whale Center drafted a technical proposal in 2003 to turn the zone into a Protected Maritime and Coastal Area of Multiple Use, a category different from a nature sanctuary.
"We opted for a broader category, of integral ecosystem management, which derives from the Protocol of the Permanent Commission of the South Pacific (created in 1952 by Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Chile)", Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, a researcher with the Blue Whale Center, explained to Tierramérica.
"One can declare a wide marine and coastal protected area, combining protection of the ecosystem and the productive activities carried out there," he added.
In 2004 and 2005 there was a series of "socialization workshops" to inform the public about the proposal, with the participation of representatives from the national government, local authorities, salmon producers and tourism agents, as well as the community.
The initiative has broad support, including from two multimillionaires who own land along the Gulf of Corcovado: the North American environmentalist and businessman Douglas Tompkins and former Chilean presidential candidate, the conservative Sebastián Piñera.
Once the proposal was perfected, it was presented to the Regional Commission on Coastal Use of the 10th region, which is made up of government officials and representatives from the tourism and productive sectors, who unanimously approved it in March.
Now it's in the hands of its counterpart in the 11th region. If the response is also an affirmative, the proposal will then be studied by the ministries of Defense and Economy, and the Secretariat of the Presidency, which should issue a decree to be signed by the president.
Chile has already established three marine and coastal multiple use areas, thanks to the project for conservation of biodiversity of global importance along the Chilean coast, being developed by the National Environment Commission (CONAMA) since 2005.
CONAMA applied to the Global Environment Fund (GEF) for support for the project in its first phase, 2005-2010, for designating three protected areas and drafting a complete system of administration.
In the long term, the national environmental agency aims to create a network of protected areas, reinforcing public-private partnerships and promoting environmental tourism.
"At this time, our main objective is to create an institutional regulatory framework for national management of the protected maritime and coastal areas," national project coordinator Roberto de Andrade said in a Tierramérica interview.
The three already declared areas are "Punta Morro-Río Copiapó", located in the 3rd region of Atacama, "Lafken Mapu Lahual" (Land and Sea of Alerces), in the 10th region of Los Lagos, and "Francisco Coloane", in the 12th region of Magallanes.
The project has a budget of 11 million dollars, of which 6.1 million come from the Chilean government, 3.8 million from GEF and 1.1 from private parties.
Hucke-Gaete hopes that by the end of the year the Gulf of Corcovado obtains the official status of multi-use protected area, which would allow him to study the behavior of the blue whale in a safe environment.
Although the zone is not on the list of 12 priority sectors identified by CONAMA, De Andrade believes its designation as a protected area will depend on the complementary studies being done, on the coordination of the regions' commissions, and on the degree of consensus achieved amongst everyone involved.
* Daniela Estrada is an IPS correspondent.