Blue Whales: The giants of Marine Conservation, Chile

Blue Whales are the largest animals ever to have existed on earth. At up to 33 metres long and 180 tonnes in weight, their sheer size and grace makes Blue Whales ideal flagship species for ocean conservation. And yet, until 1966 when international action brought the Blue Whale under protection, they were killed on a massive scale.

With a single whale yielding 120 barrels of oil, in 1931 the slaughter peaked with nearly 30,000 blue whales killed in one season. After that they became so scarce that whalers turned to other species, but blues have not since recovered their former numbers.

Chilean marine ecologist, Dr. Rodrigo Hucke-Gaete, 33, is founder and President of the Blue Whale Centre, dedicated to understanding marine ecosystems and threats to their function. In 2003, Rodrigo headed a team that discovered one of the most outstanding blue whale feeding and nursing grounds known to exist in the Southern Hemisphere. Located off Chiloé Island and the Corcovado Gulf in southern Chile, the Blue Whales found here appear to be thriving, but the exciting discovery was soon overshadowed by concern. Rapidly intensifying economic activities threaten this relatively pristine ecosystem, with pollution, the spread of introduced species, over-fishing and industrial maritime traffic all increasing in impact.

Since 2002, Rodrigo and his team have been developing an effective conservation strategy for Chile’s blue whale population. Partnered with a range of institutions, they are gaining an understanding of blue whale ecology through tagging, survey and photo identification. They are involving local stakeholders proactively in conservation, and work in schools is changing attitudes towards the ocean.

At government level, the team is using its research to advocate all development, from salmon farming to whale watching, is sustainable and integrates the needs of local fishermen, the main stakeholders of the coast. Central to this work is the establishment of a new Multiple-Use Marine and Coastal Protected Area – the first of a network of MPAs new to Chile – to protect whales from further decline. Long-term Rodrigo hopes to unify global efforts to conserve oceans, not only in Chile but also Antarctica and South America.

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