Keeping the whale population afloat: A global push for political action in Chile

February 27, 2024

Southern right whales have frequented the waters off the coast of Chile for generations, yet human activity has led to their population in the Southeast Pacific dwindling to the point that they are now classified as ‘Critically Endangered’ (IUCN) with fewer than 50 mature individuals remaining. Urgent measures are necessary for their recovery and the recent death of a southern right whale calf in June 2023, after being caught up in fishing gear, led conservationists to push for decisive action.

Letter to Chilean government: a joint message for immediate action to protect southern right whales 
On 3 November 2023, the Cetacean Conservation Centre and Ecoceanos Center led an action to deliver a letter to the president of the Republic of Chile, Gabriel Boric, representing over 70 undersigned organisations. The letter highlights the urgency of tackling the anthropogenic risks faced by southern right whales in the area and calls for immediate action to mediate these with a specific focus on the two major threats: intensive fishing and salmon farming.

These two human activities pose numerous dangers to the whales whose migratory routes, as well as feeding and breeding grounds, are in these waters.

Entanglement is a major cause of death, having claimed two lives in the last seven years. Fishing practices are a leading contributor to the species mortality, with whales getting caught in fishing gear and colliding with vessels. Salmon farms pose further danger, as their anti-predator nets are a threat to the whales in the area.

Global threats like pollution and climate change add to the situation, and the combination of these hazards to the lives and environment of the whales makes for a distressing forecast for the future of the critically endangered Chile-Peru population.

The dire need for measures protecting these vulnerable cetaceans has been present in the area for decades. Organisations like the Cetacean Conservation Centre, co-founded by Bárbara Galletti (FFN Award winner 2011), have been at the vanguard of pressing for action and often succeeding, such as in the historic case of Law 20.293.

Commonly known as the Chilean Whale Sanctuary, the law was enacted in 2008 granting protection to all cetacean species in Chilean waters, while also introducing a regulatory framework for their observation in the country. Ten years later, in 2018, the governments of Chile and Peru signed a Memorandum of Understanding to strengthen cooperation for the species’ protection.

Six actions to ensure the survival of the Chile-Peru southern right whale population
At the heart of the letter to the president is the reasonable request for governments to honour these commitments. The letter calls for urgently adopting six actions, all in line with Chilean legislation and international scientific recommendations. These are necessary for reversing the current trend and ensuring the survival of the Chile-Peru southern right whale population.

All proposed measures aim to tackle the challenges posed to the whales by the prevalent fishing and salmon-farming industry. Of the six measures, the first is a call to “strengthen and rigorously enforce the provision of the Chilean Whale Sanctuary”, which entails enforcing navigation speed limits, and regulating traffic, fishing and large-scale aquaculture, as well as eliminating pollution.

At the same time, the letter calls for two further actions to be adopted: increased protection through the elimination of intensive marine farming in protected areas, and the establishment of temporary protected areas where mothers and calves have been sighted. Through the remaining three actions, the letter also calls for more active reinforcement of the regulations, penalties for violators, and requests for increased resources to be allocated to this cause. For location-specific recommendations, the signatories refer to expert local knowledge.

The stakes are high
Regarding the letter, Bárbara Galletti, president of the Cetacean Conservation Center and FFN Winner in 2011, passionately emphasised the significance of their collective effort. She stated, “Together, with fellow conservationists from around the world, we united the voices of millions of people from over 23 countries. We delivered a resounding message to politicians, urging them to shoulder the responsibility of protecting the endangered southern right whales. The stakes are high, and the choices they make will determine whether these majestic creatures will survive or be lost forever in the depths of indifference. We must not allow their numbers to sink so low that their magnificent presence may never resurface.”

Written by Christos Vlasakidis. Photo provided by the Cetacean Conservation Centre. 

For more information about FFN Award Winner Bárbara Galletti, please visit her page.