Despite having one of the richest marine ecosystems in the country, La Higuera coast has been in constant risk. During the first decade of the year 2000, three carbon fueled thermoelectric power plants intended to be installed in the commune, very close to the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve. In the midst of this imminent danger, in 2009 Oceana began a series of four expeditions to permanently protect the area by preparing a proposal to designate it as a Multiple Purpose Protected Marine Coastal Area.

Before Oceana began its expeditions, extensive knowledge was already available regarding the diversity of marine flora and fauna present in the waters of the Choros-Damas and Chañaral Islands, thanks to the scientific work carried out by institutions such as Universidad Católica del Norte. A group of eight small islands is located in this area of Chile, that create a natural lab for research on different types of whales, dolphins and sea birds; among them, the famous Humboldt Penguin, whose largest population in the world can be found in this area.

To complement the scientific information, Oceana organized an initial underwater expedition to document this archipelago’s biodiversity with high resolution images at a depth that ranged between 20 and 140 meters. A very diverse fauna of corals, sea sponges and fish were recorded, and Gorgonia corals were discovered at a depth of over 100 meters.

The first expedition using Oceana Chile’s remote operated vehicle (ROV) was carried out in 2012. At the time, it was the only equipment of its kind in Chile, able to register high resolution images up to 600 meters below. For the first time, several Gorgonia specimens –a type of coral–, were documented, as well as fragile marine sponges; strong evidence that helped to refute the trawling industry´s claims stating that the area’s ocean floor was covered in mud or sand and only inhabited by prawns and crabs.

These findings allowed Oceana to set out on an expedition in 2014 to compare trawled areas with untrawled areas, proving that where trawling had not taken place in the last five years showed no signs of recovery. This discovery served as input material for a proposal to gradually end bottom trawl fishing and was announced by authorities in 2017.

In upcoming expeditions, between the observations made by documentalist divers in shallow waters and film shootings using the ROV at 400 meters deep, several findings were made such as the outstanding first documentation of black coral in the coastal waters of continental Chile. In the area of Bajo El Toro, at a depth of 15 to 20 meters, vast macroalgae forests were documented hosting a large diversity of rock fish.

These discoveries were an addition to the extensive scientific knowledge collected on the area confirming the existence of 187 macro benthic species; 68 fish species, many of which were very close to the coast; 122 types of birds and 21 types of marine mammals, among them the only bottle nosed dolphin colony existing in Chile, as well as other endangered species such as the chungungo and diving petrel.

The abundance of life is due to an oceanographic phenomenon known as upwelling. It allows deep, cold waters, rich in nutrients to fertilize surface waters, allowing phytoplankton to flourish. These microorganisms are the starting point of the food chain of the world’s marine ecosystems, transforming La Higuera coast into one of the most productive areas of the entire Humboldt current, which runs along Chile and Peru.

Despite the evidence collected during Oceana’s expeditions and the scientific studies produced by the academy, permanent protection of this ecosystem has still not been established. It is currently being threatened by industrial mining projects such as CAP Minería’s Puerto Cruz Grande and Andes Iron´s Dominga project.

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Associated documents

First record of black corals in shallow coastal waters of northen Chile

Informe sobre la biodiversidad bentónica: Islotes Pájaros, Bajo El toro e Isla Chungungo

Propuesta para la creación del Área Marina Costera Protegida de Múltiples Usos en La Higuera e Isla Chañaral