Capacity Building for Effective Monitoring in Coastal Zone

The Chile California Council, —within its effort towards a Coastal-Marine Resilience and its program Chile California Conservation Exchange— recently managed the visit of Dirk Rosen to Chile, founder and executive director of MARE, an organization that has monitored the network of Marine Protected Areas of California for over 20 years using deep-water operating robots. The main objective of the visit was to transfer lessons learned from California’s experience in coastal-marine monitoring and conservation, involving the participation of scientific researchers, universities, and local authorities from the Ministry of the Environment, Subpesca, Sernapesca, and IFOP, among others. The visit enabled a possible pilot project for effective monitoring of marine biodiversity in the Marine Protected Areas of Chile, which would allow adapting the California experience, taking the Marine Life Protection Act of 1999 as a reference; a public policy of public-private collaboration, which culminated in the creation of 124 marine protected areas in a chain, from North to South, with their governance, management and monitoring established to protect the ocean and ensure its resilience.

The visit lasted between november 6 and 20, and it made possible to publicize the importance of analyzing the ocean and moving towards a public-private monitoring project in Chile, to enable conservation and sustainable development policies based on science and data. In the following article we give more details about this visit and the impact it could have for science, biodiversity and sustainable development of the Chilean Ocean, as well as the context of California as an international reference in successful public policies for ocean conservation and the learning curves that Chile can take advantage of.

Importance of submarine monitoring

Knowing the biodiversity of our oceans and its variation over time is essential to make informed decisions and implement public policies regarding its conservation. However, it is estimated that more than 80% of the ocean remains unexplored due to physical reasons that make the study of the ocean an extremely challenging task for scientists. For instance, the bottom of the ocean is deeper than Mount Everest (inverted from the sea surface), where we can find extreme atmospheric pressure, low visibility, strong water currents and very low temperatures. “In a way, it’s much easier to send people into space than to the bottom of the ocean. In a dive to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, which is almost 11 kilometers deep, you’re talking about more than 1,000 times more pressure than on the surface, which is equivalent to the weight of 50 jumbo jets pressing down on your body.”¹

So how do you explore the seabed? The most traditional way is through human divers, where the main limitation is depth. Recreational divers usually reach depths of 20-40 meters while more experimented ones can reach depths around 100 meters, which requires special certification and various oxygen tanks with different compositions of compressed air. Other alternatives to reach greater depth and duration are human-occupied vehicles (HOV) or remotely operated vehicles (ROV), where even the deepest corners of the ocean can be reached.

The case of California

In this context, the history of California’s marine protected area (MPA) networks goes back to the end of the last century, where the California government faced an imminent reduction in the quantity, variety and size of its marine resources, mainly due to the overexploitation of these resources. Given this scenario, and using references from Australia and New Zealand, California implemented the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) in 1999, which established a network of 124 MPAs along the coast in a 10-year process.

The idea was simple and encouraging: by defining a large enough non-extraction coastal area, it would be possible to preserve species for a large part of their lives and take advantage of their reproductive potential, to later allow migration to nearby less populated areas. Using the case of the Californian rock fish Sebastes miniatus or commonly known as Red Snapper as an example, while a young individual weighing less than 1 kg can have 150,000 young per year, the same but more experienced, with 3.5 kg, can reach 1,700,000 young per year. This exponential increase shows that the size does matter in the species, since it has also been verified that the probability of success of the offspring also increases with the age of the parent.

The project was a success and its results were monitored by MARE since its inception. In 10 years the fish population had increased by more than 300%. Not only within the defined MPAs, but also outside them in adjacent extractive areas, due to the overflow or Spillover Effect. Furthermore, in addition to the increase in fish numbers, growth in size (which is a proxy for age) and variety was also observed, giving rise to species never before seen off the California coast (see figures 2 and 3).

Currently, the California MPA network has 124 conservation zones distributed along the entire coast, equivalent to 15% of its total waters (see figure 1). In addition to correct planning and timing implementation, the success of the program is explained by three main reasons:

  1. a project design based on the protection of the ecosystem and its interactions, and not based on the sole protection of the most threatened species;
  2. an independent and interconnected network of marine reserves distributed in 4 zones from north to south, covering representative portions of all ecologically relevant habitats; and
  3. an adaptive and participatory program based on 4 pillars: Research and Monitoring for decision-making and measure the impact, Enforcement and Compliance for observance

Figure 1: MPA distribution in California (California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 2022)

Figure 2: Species biodiversity on predefined area of the Gull Island, Massachussets in 2009 and 2014 (Mare Group, 2015)

Figure 3: Average fish density inside (red) and outside (blue) of a MPA in California, from 2005 to 2015

(MARE Group, 2015)

Dirk Rosen and MARE Group

Dirk has dedicated his life to the study, monitoring and conservation of deep ocean, and in 2003 founded the non-profit organization Marine Applied Research and Exploration (MARE Group) with the mission to explore and document deep-sea ecosystems to assist in its management and conservation, where he has served as executive director ever since. For this, they design, develop, and use their own ROVs and HOVs that allow deep-sea biodiversity inventories and monitor their development over time. In this way, they have technologies capable of reaching a depth of 650 meters and recording high-quality images for later analysis (see figure 4). MARE is currently the organization in charge of monitoring the California MPA network, and they have documented more than 2,700 kilometers of seabed just at the coast of California, much of which has never been analyzed before.

Figure 4: MARE Group’s vehicles to carry out underwater monitoring. From left to right: Beagle, the most robust that includes various sensors and allows sample taking from the seabed, reaching up to 650 m depth; Hammerhead, that reaches up to 300m; Stingray, which uses lithium batteries and reaches up to 200m with 2 hours of autonomy; and BATFish, the smallest and lightest robot that allows faster monitoring for benthic zones up to 100 m deep. (Mare Group)

Chile California Council

The Chile California Council is a non-profit organization established in San Francisco, that seeks to facilitate knowledge transfer and collaboration between Chile and California, taking advantage of the existing similarities between both territories. Within the Coastal Resilience program, specific initiatives have been developed since 2019. First, the 2030 Marine-Coastal Strategy –developed after COP25 and socialized in 2020 and 2021–, seeks to understand and identify the enabling conditions for meeting international climate goals in the Chilean coastal zone. This includes an analysis of institutional design problems and a roadmap for its implementation, as well as the design of science-based participatory governance models and capacity building projects for effective biodiversity monitoring, based on the fundamentals and learning from the California experience. Subsequently, in 2022, the CCC has carried out an extensive study to estimate the economic value of the coastal ecosystem services of Chile’s coastal zone, which will allow a first approximation of the economic contribution of implementing conservation initiatives in Chile. The study segmented the results by coastal commune, from Arica to Puerto Montt, to support territorial planning and public policies.

Along the same lines, during 2022 the Council have been working with the Network of Regional Centers and Stations of the Catholic University of Chile (RCER UC) and the Natural Reserve System of the Universities of California (UC NRS), who recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). The CCC seeks to support on the implementation on this MOU through the Chile California Conservation Exchange (CCCx) program, where Dirk Rosen’s visit is the first of the CCCx “Exchanges 2022-23” cycle.

This visit shows the importance of enabling an effective coastal monitoring as an effective tool to measure and implement conservancy policies, where Chile has an enormous opportunity to advance in that direction.

An opportunity for Chile

Currently, in Chile there are four types of Marine Protected Areas, where two of them are exclusively aquatic: Marine Parks, where no activity can be carried out, except those previously authorized and intended for observation, research or study purposes; and the Marine Reserves, where extractive activities can only be carried out for transitory periods with legal authorization of the respective authority (Subpesca).

In the last decade, Chile has made significant progress in the protection of marine areas. Between 2014 and 2018, Chile went from protecting 4.3% of the exclusive economic zone to near 40%, which involves 10 Marine Parks that cover 85.752.211 ha and 5 Marine Reserves that cover 8.350 ha².

However, it should be noted that around 90% of the protected sea is concentrated in three ecoregions: Juan Fernández Archipelago, Islas Desventuradas and Rapa Nui, and the rest is all located in Patagonia. Therefore, the Coastal Zone from Arica to Puerto Montt still has a long way to advance in protection policies, where multiple interests for uses coexist in the context of a significant growing population.

On the other hand, the results of a recent study by the Undersecretariat of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Subpesca) do not provide encouraging results: 10 of the main fisheries in Chile are overexploited and 6 are exhausted or collapsed, which together are equivalent to more than half of the fisheries analyzed by the study³.

The mere existence of AMPs does not guarantee the effective reduction of threats faced by the country’s marine ecosystems”. Given this, a geographical distribution of interconnected MPAs with ecological representativeness and an effective management plan with correct governance is necessary, as well as an underwater monitoring system that allows establishing a scientific basis for biodiversity, decision making based on real data and measuring its impact over time.

MARE Group’s visit to Chile

The experience of California generates useful learning curves for Chile, where there are relevant similarities with respect to the processes experienced in California. In demographic terms, the population of California when the Coastal Act was promulgated in 1976 –which later created the California Coastal Commission– was similar to actual Chilean population. Furthermore, when reviewing history, the social processes that took place on Calfornia was very similar in terms of the tension between conservation and the development of invasive infrastructure and industries incompatible with population settlements.

For this reason, the Chile California Council facilitated the visit of Dirk Rosen from MARE Group, with the support of Alejandro Pérez-Matus, professor of Biological Sciences at the Catholic University and director of the Millennium Nucleus for Ecosystem Ecology and Conservation of Temperate Mesophotic Reefs (NUTME), and Liesbeth Van Der-Meer, executive director of Oceana Chile.

Dirk Rosen’s visit sought to build capacities in Chile based on the experience of more than 20 years carrying out this type of underwater monitoring in California, and highlight the importance of carrying out deep underwater monitoring as a tool to design, implement and measure effective conservation initiatives for the protection of marine biodiversity and recovery of productive habitats. The visit permitted the evaluation of alternatives to carry out this task effectively and at low cost in Chile, building local capacities.

During the visit, important meetings in Santiago and Valparaíso with various authorities, academics, and students were made. Dirk met with the Ministry of the Environment (MMA), the Undersecretary of Fisheries and Aquaculture (Subpesca), the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Service (Sernapesca), the Fisheries Development Institute (IFOP), and with the the Vice-Rector for Research and Innovation of the Pontificia Universidad Católica. At each meeting, Dirk Rosen presented the experience of California and the monitoring model of the MPA network carried out by MARE, emphasizing the similarities and opportunities for Chile.

We invite you to stay informed about the development of these and other initiatives through social media and our periodic newsletters, in addition to share this report to publicize the opportunity for Chile to take care of its oceans, through science and technology.

Figure 5: Images from encounters with authorities and scientist. Above, the Blue Forrests Seminary from Oceana. Below, the round table sustained with IFOP and Sernapesca.

¹ Dr. Gene Carl Feldman, 2021. Oceanographer of the Goddard Space Flight Center of NASA since 1985.
² Fundación Terram, 2020, based on the National Register of MPA from the Environmental Ministry of Chile.
³ Estado de Situación de las Principales Pesquerías de Chile, Subpesca, 2022.
⁴ Dr. Américo Montiel San Martín, 2019, Magallanes Univesity, Chile.