Norte Chico Project – Humboldt Penguin Protected Areas’ Network

Why the Norte Chico?

Although Chile has made a gigantic effort to create protected areas in the last five years, the vast majority of marine areas are located in the middle of the ocean and the terrestrial protected areas are located in Patagonia thousands of kilometers away from where most of Chile’s population and socio-environmental conflicts are concentrated.

The ecological importance of the regions of Coquimbo and Atacama is contrasted by their very low protection. Only 0.03% of some kind of marine protected area. There are 8 marine protected areas, covering an area of 10,622 hectares, with 97% concentrated in three areas: The AMCP-MU Isla Grande de Atacama (3,839 ha.), The Isla Chañaral Marine Reserve (2,890 ha.) and the Marine Reserve Choros Islands – Damas (3,863 ha.); the other 5 areas are very small, less than 15 hectares. 

The area combines many conditions of the physical environment that give it outstanding productivity and biological diversity, conditioned by the presence of the phenomenon of coastal upwelling. This is why the species in the conservation category such as the Humboldt penguin, yunco, chungungo and cetaceans find a place of refuge, food and reproduction in the area. The food source of these marine species depends on this exceptional productivity and the richness of species in the area, a complex mosaic of two large biogeographic provinces, the Peruvian and the Magellanic.

The area we are proposing to protect is the habitat of 80% of the world population of Humboldt penguins and is home to between 352 and 560 marine species. These include: cetaceans, a variety of fish, mollusks and algae of ecological and economic importance. The most diverse groups consist of 122 species of birds, 27 species of marine mammals (including cetaceans) and 68 species of fish that occupy 12 habitats of ecological importance.

The species of greatest interest are fragile because of their interaction with human activities. For example, the Humboldt Penguin with its main nesting colonies in this area, as well as, the bottlenose dolphin. Others have very specific feeding and/or reproductive requirements.

There is a close interaction between the coastal basins and the sea through the phenomenon of Camanchaca, it conditions the water cycle, allowing for a rich and particular coastal biodiversity for all wildlife. This allows a broader conservation area to be envisioned beyond the strictly coastal one and consider the restoration of vegetative communities by capturing moisture from the fog. It is also feasible to restore wildlife populations, especially the guanaco.

Our project

The proposal is located within 12 nautical miles of the Territorial Sea in the municipality of Freirina, La Higuera and La Serena, on the border between the regions of Atacama and Coquimbo. It has an area of ​​396,000 hectares in the sea and 106,000 hectares in the land part of the coastal edge. The proposal covers the socio-ecosystem of coastal islands located north of the Great Bay of Coquimbo, consisting of four islands, two islets, the surrounding sea and its associated coastal edge. The islands considered from north to south are: Chañaral Island of 507.3 hectares .; Damas Island of 60.3 ha .; Choros Island of 291.7 ha .; Gaviota Island of 196 ha .; Pájaros Islet 1 of 71.6 ha .; and Pájaros Islet 2 of 15.2 ha., 20 nautical miles south of Isla Choros.

In 2018 we developed a study and published a book where we established the hypothesis that the creation of the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve in 1990 and the Chañaral and Choros – Damas Islands Marine Reserves in 2005, have been insufficient to compensate the growing vulnerability of the ecosystem, and in particular, of the species that made this area popular. This effect is reflected in a substantial decline in the population of Humboldt Penguin, which Simeone (2018) estimates could reach around 60%. This is why the expansion of the current protected area is proposed, through the extension of the Chañaral, Choros and Damas marine reserves from 1 to 5 nautical miles and the creation of the new Humboldt Penguin national and marine reserve on the Pajaros islets. A Multi-Use Protected Coastal Marine Area is proposed as a buffer.

The critical habitats for the feeding and reproduction of the target conservation species lack appropriate protection under the current protected areas, both as regards their area and measures to regulate the activities which threaten these species. In other words, the current protected areas fail to fulfill the purpose for which they were created. The vulnerability of this ecosystem and its emblematic species has been exacerbated by trawling and purse-seine fishing, even within the 5 miles reserved for artisanal fishing. Among other adverse effects, the fishery competes with penguins, bottlenose dolphins, yuncos (the smallest of petrels) and chungungos (sea otters), as well as different species of whales that seasonally visit the area to feed.

This proposal presents relevant information on the fishing effort that has been carried out in the area and on the evolution in the state of fishery resources, which constitute the diet of conservation objects. The proximity of the shipping traffic of about 2,000 ships per year, which pass less than 5 miles from the Chañaral Island and Pájaros islets, including ships that leave and enter the port of Coquimbo and Huasco, is too close and should be regulated.

In addition to the ongoing human activities, a new port, mining and energy projects, bio-oceanic corridors, some already approved and others in the process of, represent a challenge of another scale. This is included in the analysis and it is necessary to understand that the priority now is to ensure the protection of the ecosystem, regardless of whether new industrial projects are approved or not.

For more information, please look at the following publications: