By shedding light on the little known marvels of Patagonia’s fjords, marine explorer Vreni Häussermann is revealing crucial scientific data that will establish a case for setting up Marine Protected Areas.

The remote, starkly beautiful glacial fjords of Patagonia, in southernmost South America, are emerging as a symbol of the struggle to save the natural life of our planet from the impact of human activity.

For more than 20 years, German-Chilean biologist Vreni Häussermann has dived their icy waters to explore and identify in intimate detail the life they harbour – an achievement documented in her illustrated field guidebook, Marine Benthic Fauna of Chilean Patagonia, which chronicles ocean animals, as well as in TV documentaries and public lectures.

To many people, Patagonia epitomizes pristine wilderness at the very end of the Earth, and so it was until recent times. Alarmed, Häussermann has observed that its cold-water corals, whales, sardines, jellyfish, shellfish and other marine organisms are beginning to die off in increasing numbers.

New documentary

As part of her plans to convince authorities to designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) within the fjord region, Häussermann presented her latest scientific findings to the International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC4) hosted by Chile in September 2017. She gave her analysis of how a network of Marine Protected Areas could be structured to conserve the most vital benthic (sea-floor) ecosystems, also screening her new documentary and conducting a “knowledge café” and seminar to share with others this sanctuary of marine wonder.

Like many of her fellow ecologists, Häussermann is driven to do all she can to save what remains. “Climate change is proving much more dramatic than we had feared. Coral reefs are dying and it is now estimated that by 2050 all larger coral reefs will have died,” she explains. “If we keep acting as we do, by then there will be more plastic in the ocean, by weight, than fish. The situation facing the Earth is drastic; we can only save our one and only planet if we protect large areas and their biodiversity and do all we can to stop climate change and the ongoing extinction of species.”

The challenge in the Patagonian fjord region is enormous. Although distant from cities and industrial centres, the impact of human activity is marked. Fish farming is bringing large amounts of nutrients, antibiotics and anti-fouling chemicals that are combining with subtle climatic changes to wreak havoc on sea animals that have dwelt undisturbed for thousands, even millions of years in the chill, slow-moving waters. “The region is heavily affected by aquaculture, a high-impact industry. Even if you feel like you are far away from everything, around the next corner in the fjord can be a huge aquaculture installation with houses three storeys high, looking like a floating city.” 

Poorly protected

Since 2003, when she became Director of the Huinay Scientific Field Station, Häussermann has led a determined campaign to have parts of the fjord region listed as Marine Protected Areas. “The oceans generally are still poorly protected,” she continues. “In Chilean Patagonia only 0.7 per cent is currently conserved. So we need to work together to study its species before they become extinct, to protect the ecosystems, and to teach people how to live in a more sustainable way.” 

She takes heart from the recent declaration by the Chilean government of three new, mainly offshore protected areas. “They are now participating in the process of developing a plan for a network of protected areas in Chilean Patagonia. This is a first step. In the current proposal we are using data on 220 invertebrate species we have collected, as well as data on 40 mammals and bird species collected by other, cooperating organizations.” 

As part of her work raising public awareness, Häussermann has co-written a book, Biodiversity First! Explore and Save Animal Diversity Now. “We will set up a foundation and ask wealthy people all over the world to donate money to fund taxonomists to describe the unknown species.”

Dark waters

Her own exploration in Patagonia’s dark waters is restricted by the practical limitations of scuba diving to the top 30 metres. Consequently, she has used her 2016 Rolex Laureate funding to take her remotely operated vehicle – a robot submarine – on three expeditions to penetrate the deeper places where life dwells beyond human gaze. Trials in 2017 necessitated some technical fine-tuning, and the first major expedition is planned for April 2018. “Since we already have lots of data and new species we have found, we have been concentrating on the public outreach.” 

After the IMPAC4 conference Häussermann organized an expedition to Comau Fjord and Madre de Dios archipelago to study the extent and cause of coral death. Its demise poses a conundrum. Global warming is the main killer of tropical corals, by overheating sea-surface temperatures, and ocean acidification and bottom trawling are the main threats to cold-water corals. In Patagonia, however, whose waters are so far south they remain relatively cold, coral deaths are far harder to explain: a complex interplay of man-made nutrients (causing algal blooms) and toxic chemicals, as well as the elevated activity of cold water vents, seem to be the most likely explanation.

Globally endangered

But haunting Häussermann and her colleagues is the scene they encountered on an expedition in 2015 to the remote Golfo de Penas, where 335 dead sei whales were strewn along the shores of the inlets and channels. Sei is the third largest known whale species and rated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as globally endangered. They lead solitary lives, are seldom found in large groups, and feed on small crabs, lobsters and fish they strain through the baleen, a filter-feeder system inside their mouth. “We cannot really explain how so many whales ended up in the shallow and narrow inlets unless they actively swam in following their prey,” Häussermann says. 

Mass pollution is impossible, as the nearest settling is more than 200 kilometres away. However, the El Niño event of 2014–2015 brought longer hours of sunlight, calm waters and reduced rainfall – ideal conditions for triggering so-called red tides. These huge blooms of toxic algae probably have poisoned the whales’ diet, scientists say. 

El Niño events, though part of a natural cycle, are predicted to become more frequent and intense due to global warming. At the same time, the carbon dioxide we release is causing ocean waters to acidify, which interferes with the ability of corals, crabs and shellfish to form skeletons and shells. The acidified water may also make some algal toxins more potent. 

Correctly attributing causes so that they can be minimized will be a key focus for Häussermann in the years ahead. At the same time, armed with her aquatic robot, she intends to reveal hitherto unseen marvels from one of the most enigmatic regions on Earth, leading us all to a greater appreciation of its natural systems and of how humanity can help restore, protect and value them.

Learn more about Vreni Häussermann

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