Fighting a Chile mining project with science: Q&A with biologist Maritza Sepúlveda

  • A recently approved mining project on the Chilean coast has sparked concerns from scientists about the potential impacts on the marine mammals living in the nearby Humboldt Archipelago.
  • The channel between the islands and the mainland are home to 15 species of cetaceans, including fin whales, which feed in the area where the mining port will be built — putting them at threat of ship strikes.
  • The mining project was previously rejected by the provincial after scientists raised their concerns; among them was marine biologist Maritza Sepúlveda, who studies the marine mammals of the Humboldt Archipelago.
  • She says the marine reserve that currently covers just three of the eight islands in the archipelago needs to be expanded to cover a much wider area, noting that “animals don’t recognize administrative regions.”

Maritza Sepúlveda grew up in San Felipe, a town far from the ocean in central Chile. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, her curiosity about the ocean began early in her life. She always knew that she would grow up to be a marine biologist like Jacques Cousteau, whom she watched on television every week.

At the start of her second year in university, Sepúlveda embarked on a seven-day boat trip to the island of Rapa Nui, best known for its moai stone heads, to participate in coral research. “I knew how to dive, and the professor needed a diver,” she said. During that time, she learned to count whales along with a group of older students who were building their careers around cetaceans. “That’s where my interest in marine mammals came from,” Sepúlveda said.

Today, Sepúlveda is a marine biologist with a doctorate in ecology, working in the School of Sciences at Chile’s University of Valparaiso. She teaches classes on ecology and marine mammals and also conducts research in the university’s Marine Mammal Ecology Lab.

Marine biologist Maritza Sepúlveda. Image courtesy of Maritza Sepúlveda.

In recent years, Sepúlveda has joined a growing community of scientists making the case to the Chilean government about the importance of protecting the Humboldt Archipelago. The archipelago is considered a priority site for conservation as it contains the Humboldt Penguin National Reserve, an ostensibly protected area. The main threat to the islands, conservationists say, is the controversial Dominga mining project just across the channel on the mainland, which includes the construction of a port in the area.

Mongabay Latam spoke with Maritza Sepúlveda to understand the sheer richness and uniqueness of the marine mammals found here, the nature of the threats they face from the mining project, and why the size of the marine reserve doesn’t reflect the animals’ true range.

Mongabay Latam: What do marine mammals face with the construction of Dominga?

Maritza Sepúlveda: The company claims that the reserve will not be affected because the mega port will be built 37 kilometers [23 miles] to the south, but the issue is that the animals move — they move many kilometers. In 2015, we put transmitters on six fin whales [Balaenoptera physalus], the most abundant species of large cetaceans in the area. We installed them in the reserve, but all the whales, without exception, went to feed along the coastal area where they want to build the mega port. So it doesn’t make sense not to consider that area, because it is all one big combination. There are eight islands that, as a whole, [fit] like a jigsaw puzzle. You can’t only protect two pieces but not put together the puzzle.

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