By Marcela Valente
An innovative responsible tourism initiative in the Beagle Channel – a narrow strait linking the Atlantic and Pacific near the southernmost tip of South America – ensures the compatibility of the observation and conservation of unique bird and mammal species.
Since December, tour boats that comply with a series of standards established to protect the wildlife living on the islands here at the “end of the world” are certified under the Onashaga Commitment and awarded a seal of approval.
The small islands that dot the strait, which separates the southernmost regions of Argentina and Chile, have been designated as Important Bird Areas by the conservation organization BirdLife International, due to high diversity of bird species found there.
They are the nesting and breeding grounds of the imperial shag (Phalacrocorax atriceps) and rock shag (Phalacrocorax magellanicus), the Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus) and Gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua), the kelp gull (Larus dominicanus) and dolphin gull (Larus scoresbii), the Chilean skua (Stercorarius chilensis) and the South American tern (Sterna hirundinacea).
From the tour boats, visitors can also observe colonies of South American sea lions (Otaria flavescens) that completely cover one of the islands in the channel, whose width fluctuates between three and seven kilometers.
“The concern over regulating certain practices was raised by the owners of the boats that bring tourists through the channel,” said Nicolás Pincol of the non-governmental Natural Patagonia Foundation (FPN).
Aboard a catamaran used for these guided tours, Pincol told Tierramérica that tour operators reported that when several boats approached the same island at the same time, the birds became alarmed and frightened, and many would fly off, leaving their chicks behind.
The operators, for their part, say they were informed of the problem by the tour guides working for them.
“The guides commented that there was an invasion that was having an impact on the wildlife, and we began to work towards a commitment, on a fairly ad hoc basis at first, to better protect it,” the owner of one of the tour companies, Moreno Preto, told Tierramérica.
The agreement eventually reached was christened the Onashaga Commitment. Onashaga is the name given to the Beagle Channel by the Yámana indigenous people, and means “channel of the hunters” in their language.
Up until the 19th century, the Yámana, who were hunters themselves, lived on the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost province of Argentina, which is bathed by the waters of the Beagle Channel.
The Ministry of Tourism and the Prefecture responsible for guarding the area became involved in the initiative, and were joined by the FPN and other organizations that provided technical assistance for the certification process.
Together they formed the Onashaga Commitment Monitoring Committee, which organized training and orientation workshops for the tour companies, tour guides and members of the Naval Prefecture, among other stakeholders.
The FPN joined the initiative as part of the Inter-Jurisdictional System of Marine and Coastal Protected Areas, created to enhance protection of coastal and marine biodiversity in Patagonia.
The System facilitates joint efforts by government authorities, scientific and technical organizations and the private sector for the conservation of species from the south of the province of Buenos Aires to Tierra del Fuego.
Since the signing of the Onashaga Commitment on Oct. 5, 2005, boats that operate in the channel have agreed to adopt technical measures to avoid fuel spills in the water, in addition to a series of tourism-related good practices.
Under the agreement, tour boat skippers work in coordination so that their boats approach the islands one at a time, at low speed to cause as little disturbance as possible, while the others wait a good distance away or visit other islands.
The tour guides also turn off the audio speakers on the boat decks that they normally use to provide commentary, and ask the passengers to speak in low voices and not to feed the animals.
“The tour companies have a reference manual on the different recommended practices, and receive points for fulfilling each of the standards established. Once they have accumulated more than 500 points they are awarded certification,” explained Pincol.
There are also recommendations for passengers, such as reusing the glasses in which they are served drinks during the tour, and refraining from throwing cigarette butts or any other trash into the water.
Despite these efforts, however, there is still a ways to go before all tourism activity in the strait is covered by the initiative.
Of the 20 boats that conduct tours along the Beagle Channel every tourist season, carrying a total of roughly 170,000 passengers from around the world, 10 have applied for certification and only eight have received it so far. The others must continue working to improve their practices.
In some spots passengers are allowed to get off the boats, and as part of the initiative, trails have been marked to ensure that they do not venture into areas where they could cause a disturbance. They are also told not to collect plants or rocks along the way.