Patagonia Coastal and Southwestern Atlantic Seascape

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The Argentine marine environment is both productive and harsh, ranging from marshy lowlands in the north to windswept cliffs and glaciers in the south, with adjacent waters varying in temperature from sub-tropical to sub-Antarctic. Straddling Argentina and Chile, the southernmost point on the continent, known as Tierra del Fuego, is beset by some of the world’s most tumultuous weather, which has resulted in numerous shipwrecks throughout recorded history. Isolated and sparsely inhabited, these shores harbor some of the world’s most spectacular concentrations of wildlife.

The region remains remote and wild, but has suffered the effects of overfishing, oil extraction, and transport. Still the area provides critical habitat for huge colonies of Magellanic penguins, as well as cormorants, albatrosses, elephant seals, southern right whales, sea lions, and fish such as hake and Patagonian toothfish (better known as Chilean seabass). The living resources of the area, particularly fish and squid, are of major economic importance. The rich marine life in the southwest Atlantic ecosystem sustains breeding and feeding aggregations of albatross, penguins, whales, and seals. These wildlife breeding and feeding spectacles also draw seasonal tourists to the region. The Jason Islands in the Falkland/Malvinas Islands, are home to a spectacular breeding seabird community, which includes the largest colony of black-browed albatrosses in the world, with more than 140,000 breeding pairs.

Fast Facts

  • Spanning 700,000 square miles, the Patagonian Large Marine Ecosystem, which contains and surrounds the Patagonian Shelf, is one of the largest and richest seascapes in the world.
  • Magellanic penguins number more than one million pairs and nest almost exclusively on the coast of Argentina in more than 50 colonies.
  • Almost one-third of the world’s remaining southern right whales breed in waters along the coast of Patagonia.

Challenges

The Patagonian Large Marine Ecosystem has a history of exploitation for oil production and commercial fishing, which has resulted in a reduction of breeding populations and habitat degradation. Many species are in decline and are now globally threatened.

The principal threat to the region’s marine wildlife is the rapidly expanding South Atlantic fishery. Unsustainable, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing by commercial fleets threatens many fish and squid species found on the continental shelf and slope off Argentine Patagonia, and adversely impact wildlife higher up the food chain. Conservationists are concerned that renewed pressure from the fishing industry on recovering stocks of hake, in addition to shrimp, squid, and Patagonian toothfish, will impact wildlife that depend on these resources to feed themselves and their young.

Other threats include pollution, climate change, human disturbance, wildlife diseases, and the introduction of non-native species. There is a need for continued education to build upon increasing public awareness of the value of preserving marine ecosystems.

WCS Responds

WCS began working in coastal Patagonia in the 1960s, conducting research and conservation of southern right whales. In the 1980s, we expanded our efforts to protect the other spectacular colonies of marine mammals and seabirds, including the southern elephant seals of Peninsula Valdes and the Magellanic penguins of Punta Tombo as well as other birds such as cormorants, gulls, and terns.

The Argentine coast is a focus of over a dozen longstanding WCS projects that have been instrumental in generating new information on wildlife, creating new protected areas, and increasing community awareness of wildlife. Today, WCS’s conservation efforts on the coast even include the protection of the largest parrot colony in the world, which resides in the cliffs that face the ocean near Viedma in northern Patagonia. Our Sea and Sky project is helping to protect the health of the Patagonian Sea and inspiring local interest in ocean conservation. Working with our partners, we have helped improve ecosystem management for this vast stretch of the southwest Atlantic Seascape—an epicenter of biological productivity.

In 2009, WCS and Birdlife International released an Atlas of the Patagonian Sea, which contains the most accurate maps ever assembled for this ecosystem and shows key migratory corridors for the region's wildlife inhabitants, including albatross, petrels, penguins, fur seals, the South American sea lion, and the southern elephant seal.

From the Newsroom

Penguin Chicks Face Increasing Risks February 3, 2014

The life of a young Magellanic penguin has never been easy. Now, a new study shows that the vulnerable chicks face additional threats to their survival from climate change.

Argentina’s Open-Ocean ReserveAugust 2, 2013

Argentina has created its first open-ocean protected area, Burdwood Bank. This sanctuary in the Patagonian Sea will protect whales, penguins, and rare cold corals. WCS commends Argentina’s government on the achievement, and thanks local partners of the Forum of NGOs.

Expedition to Tierra del Fuego’s Admiralty SoundFebruary 29, 2012

WCS conservationists Alejandro Vila, Marcela Uhart and Daniela Droguett chronicle their latest journey to the remote lands and seascape at the tip of South America.

Chile Reels in Salmon FarmingAugust 24, 2011

WCS applauds Chile’s efforts to protect Patagonia’s waters from the salmon industry. But there are many other fish farms in its seas.

The Mystery of the Naked PenguinsApril 7, 2011

Featherless penguin chicks have been popping up on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the last few years. WCS researchers and their partners are unraveling the clues to this strange disorder.

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