The Making of a New Marine Protected Area in Uruguay
Sea turtles are found throughout Uruguay’s waters, but because the country hosts no nesting, little attention had been paid to these animals until the formation of the nongovernmental organization Karumbé in 1999. Karumbé is a group of scientists, teachers, fishermen, and students working together toward the conservation of sea turtles in Uruguay through research, rehabilitation, outreach, education, and sustainable development.
After its establishment, members of Karumbé spent four years studying the occurrence and conservation status of sea turtles in Uruguayan waters to inform future research and conservation efforts. The studies were done in collaboration with local community members (including fishermen, politicians, artisans, teachers, military groups, traders, tourist guides, and farmers) in the various areas of study. Not only did these collaborations make the work possible, but also they laid a foundation for future collaboration around conservation efforts. Karumbé’s research found that juvenile green turtles are the most common sea turtle species in Uruguay and then identified the area of Cerro Verde and La Coronilla Islands as a critical foraging and developmental habitat. The studies revealed that green turtles are subject to a number of ongoing threats in Uruguayan waters, particularly by fisheries by-catch.
Beyond hosting important habitat for sea turtles, the area of Cerro Verde and La Coronilla Islands hosts great biodiversity, including many migratory and endangered species such as Franciscan and bottlenose dolphins, right whales, sea lions, and seabirds. Despite the fact that the area is part of the Bañados del Este y Franja Costera Biosphere Reserve, which was established in 1976 and has been on the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance since 1982, it lacks a management plan to ensure its sustainable development. Given the area’s importance for sea turtles and other biodiversity, Karumbé decided to make Cerro Verde and La Coronilla Islands its primary target for sea turtle conservation.
Following the completion of preliminary research in 2004, all of the information that had been generated by Karumbé and other research groups was published in two bachelor’s theses that detailed the area’s great importance for biodiversity. Those publications enabled Karumbé to write a report to Uruguay’s National Environmental Agency in 2005, thereby asserting the importance of Cerro Verde and La Coronilla Islands and urging the agency to include the area within Uruguay’s National System of Protected Areas (Sistema Nacional de Áreas Protegidas, or SNAP). The justification was based on the area’s biogeographical, ecological, scientific, economic, and social relevance; unique landscapes; and overall importance at national and international levels.
After the report was presented to SNAP, Karumbé began carrying out additional research that would be needed to develop an effective management plan should the area be declared a protected area. The studies found that this foraging ground hosts a mixed stock of turtles originating from 10 distinct nesting beaches in the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, mortality of turtles in Uruguayan waters may be depleting endangered nesting populations elsewhere in the Atlantic, which further highlights the area’s conservation importance.
Recent studies found that although incidental capture by artisanal and recreational fisheries is an important threat to green turtles in Cerro Verde, interaction with solid marine debris is the main cause of mortality that has been increasing since 2008. To a lesser extent, meat consumption and carapace trade also threaten Cerro Verde’s green turtle populations. To address those threats and to build long-term support for the possible protected area, Karumbé has been working to promote economic alternatives and to increase the participation of local people in conservation activities. A new Marine Turtle Center was constructed in the town of La Coronilla, which is adjacent to Cerro Verde, and Karumbé has been carrying out public awareness efforts at the area’s main tourist sites along with environmental education activities in local schools. Such efforts, which include an annual sea turtle festival, have served as key elements to build community support for the development of the protected area.
In the end, Karumbé’s many years of work have paid off. In August 2011, the government of Uruguay declared Cerro Verde and La Coronilla Islands a Coastal-Marine Protected Area. Although the work is far from over, thanks to the groundwork laid by Karumbé over the prior 12 years, the forthcoming management plan will be well informed, and the protected area will benefit from strong participation by local communities. This result, in turn, will benefit not only the regional sea turtle population but also the entire local ecosystem.
This article originally appeared in SWOT Report, vol. 7 (2012). Click here to download the entire article as a PDF.