Chiloe wetlands await protection

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Bahía Villa Quinchao. Photo: José Cardenas VejarBahía Villa Quinchao. Photo: José Cardenas Vejar


By Caterinna del Río
Translation by Steve Kraybill
The Bahía Lomas wetland in Tierra del Fuego spent 16 years waiting to be protected under Chilean law, from 2004 when a part of it was named a wetland of international importance, until it was finally declared an official nature sanctuary on April 16th. Today, two wetlands of Chiloé are enduring a similar long, official wait to be protected under this legal designation.
The big island of Chiloé is not just appreciated for its rich cultural history but it’s natural landscape with wide beaches, rolling hills, and thick forests with wildlife like the Darwin’s fox, the pudú deer, and the monito del monte. But increasingly tourists and Chiloe aficionados are flocking to this verdant, rainy archipelago to walk along the coast in the sandy, muddy terrain known as the intertidal plain to meet up with another sort of tourist: the island’s extraordinary migratory bird population, some of which travel from far-flung areas in another hemisphere to get here.


Limosa haemastica. Photo: José Cárdenas VejarLimosa haemastica. Photo: José Cárdenas Vejar

What’s the draw for these special migratory birds? It’s Chiloe’s valuable wetlands.
On the eastern coast of Chiloé, there are 10 wetlands of special interest: Curaco de Vélez, Pullao, Chullec, Rilán, San Juan, Castro, Putemún, Teguel, Nercón and Quinchao. And two of those wetlands, Bahía de Curaco de Vélez and Bahía Villa Quinchao, were requested for the creation of new nature sanctuaries in April of this year. 
In a press statement, Washington Ulloa, Quinchao's mayor, said that the nomination of almost 96 hectares of wetlands in Quinchao Bay "opens up an opportunity for environmental education, special interest tourism and the involvement of the local community.”
These wetlands are essential for maintaining health ecosystems. They prevent floods and droughts by absorbing, retaining, purifying and releasing freshwater. All classes of life thrive within them. There are the numerous birds, of course, but also a tremendous variety of plant species, amphibians and even marine life. Yet without legal safeguards, they are threatened by urbanization and uncontrolled development projects, pollution, invasive species, livestock farming and more.
But it’s the migratory birds that most capture the attention and concern.
Critical habitat
Every year, these wetlands offer critical habitat for several species of migratory birds that travel more than 15,000 km to escape the Northern Hemisphere winter at their breeding grounds in Alaska and Canada. The wetlands on Chiloe’s eastern coast, which altogether amount to just 1,900 hectares, are home to more than 20,000 Hudsonian Godwit (Limosa haemastica) birds which represent about one-fifth of the worldwide population of this threatened species. They hang out here from October to April, where they feed and gather the necessary energy for their long return flight home.

Limosa haemastica. Photo: José Cárdenas VejarLimosa haemastica. Photo: José Cárdenas Vejar


There is also the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), which unlike the godwit, travels to the Chiloé Archipelago during Chile’s winter months. Here its population is concentrated in the Caulín and Putemún wetlands, where it feeds on the algae and benthic fauna that grow there. One theory is that they arrive from the highlands in northern Chile, while another group of scientists believe that they come from Argentina’s Pampas region. In either case, this bird must complete a journey of thousands of kilometers to get to Chiloé.
Black-necked swans (Cygnus melanocoryphus) can also be seen, but they are here to stay. In 2004, after the Celulosa Arauco Constitución contaminated the Las Cruces River near Valdivia, where nearly 4,000 specimens of this species died, many migrated and found a home in the wetlands of Chiloé such as at Pullao and Curacao de Vélez.
Protecting the wetlands
In 2018, Chile launched its National Wetland Protection Plan 2018-2022. The initiative that seeks to “help stop the deterioration of the wetlands and preserve its rich biodiversity.” The goal: by 2020 to have identified and agreed upon priority wetlands areas that need to be protected through the National System of Protected Areas (SNAP), and by 2030 establish legal mechanisms for the protection wetlands.
This year two wetland protection decrees have been widely celebrated. The first was on April 17, when the Humedal Bahía Lomas in Tierra del Fuego, approximately 58,946 hectares, was declared a nature sanctuary; and the second decree for the wetlands of Río Maullín in Llanquihue province and Río Chepu in Chiloé. Each are included in the National Wetlands Plan 2018-2022, which on June 5 of this year added almost 12,000 new hectares of protected land. 

Bahía Curaco de Velez. Photo: Claudio DelgadoBahía Curaco de Velez. Photo: Claudio Delgado


Meantime, the Marine Conservation Foundation, together with the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, have requested that two new nature sanctuaries be declared in Chiloe, one at Bahía de Curaco de Vélez, and the other at Bahía Villa Quinchao. Until now, these wetlands have been part of the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network, but this international recognition has no legal weight in Chile.
Claudio Delgado, coordinator of the conservation planning program for the Marine Conservation Foundation, says that declaring these places as sanctuaries would represent a big step forward in legally protecting crucial wetlands important to migratory birds in southern Chile.
“It would also be an important milestone for the conservation work that has been being implemented for 12 years together with municipalities and the community,” adds Delgado, who says the delay is likely due to “processes that are long and bureaucratic.”
He says the wetlands “undoubtedly are a contribution to local tourism, given that legal protection allows planning the uses of the site, developing them, and helping the sustainability of touristic activity based on the observation of nature and the knowledge of Chilote cultural heritage.”