Marine Education and Conservation in Chile


Could the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium in California serve as the model for an aquarium in Chile? That is one of the questions being asked by the National Marine Education Program, launched last year by partners that include two local universities and the Chile-California Council, a San Francisco-based non-profit organization for cooperation between Chile and California. It was thanks to the latter that Julie Packard, daughter of Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard, visited Chile recently to share her experience, as a biologist and the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s executive director, not only about aquariums but also about marine education and conservation in general.

How important would an aquarium be for marine education in Chile? Just a cherry on the cake or more central than that?

In the US, aquariums have had a major impact on public awareness of the ocean and ocean issues and an aquarium that reaches a lot of people can, by serving as a catalyst to mobilize people around the importance of the ocean and protecting it, be a critical element in achieving healthy ecosystems.  

But is an aquarium realistic in Chile? How many visitors does the Monterey Bay Aquarium receive each year?

Around 1.8 million but, in the US, each aquarium has its own specific story in terms of its business model, funding and structure. There are successful aquariums of all sizes but, yes, you have to size it appropriately to the target market and you have to have the donor support.

You were only in Chile briefly but what’s your impression of the state of marine conservation? 

I saw a very impressive set of research and universities with excellent capacity to provide information about ecosystems. There’s a long history of information about some parts of the coast – for example, the central coast where the Las Cruces marine station is located. A lot of valuable work and very high-quality science is being done. Of course, they don’t have enough funding but that’s the same everywhere.

And what do you see as the main challenges going forward?

Certainly, Chile needs to invest not only in characterizing its ecosystems but also in monitoring and enforcing the laws that are put in place. There’s also a big emerging interest in the expansion of salmon farms. They’re a very important part of the economy and economic growth but there’s a lot of concern about ensuring better controls and standards and that they’re sited in the right place. And there’s a need for more scientific understanding and planning work where the government really needs to invest, although not a vast amount.

One thing that seems to be at an early stage is the development of NGOs based in Chile to work with the government and engage with the public on these issues. A lot of environmental government actions happen in the US because of advocacy groups.

At our meetings in Chile, we also talked about the need to develop general public awareness and environmental education in schools. A lot of concern was expressed by Chileans about the state of science and environmental education.

The Packard Foundation has contributed funding to the National Marine Education Program; what other projects does it have in Chile?

With other foundations, we’re starting to make grants towards improving management of fisheries off the coast of Chile, Peru and Ecuador. We’ve funded a major marine conservation program in the Gulf of California and Mexico for a very long time and have also done a lot of fisheries management work off the coast of California.

Better fisheries management in what sense?

Right now, we’re in a global fisheries crisis because the majority of fisheries are being fished either at or beyond their capacity to sustain themselves. There are a lot of tools that can be used to manage them in a way where they sustain the fishing enterprise in the long term and provide food for something like the one billion people who depend on fish for their primary protein. It’s a matter of food security and economic security for many countries.

Chile, as it turns out, is on its way to putting in place some effective fisheries policies. The US foundations that are starting to engage are funding organizations in Chile – including some US-based NGOs that have offices in Chile – and some grants may go to research institutions such as the universities that are doing really important work to assess and understand the status of the ecosystems.

How good a job are NGOs doing in Chile?

I was impressed with the quality of the teams that I interacted with. But they’re very small. Generally, all NGO work is funded by contributions. They need to grow and they’re only going to grow through philanthropic support. One of the big areas of some US foundations is to build NGO capacities in other countries but each country also needs to chart its own future.

Chile doesn’t have a tradition of philanthropy, at least not on a par with the US. Is that just a matter of income level or more than that?

Some people say it’s a matter of tax laws but a lot of people in the US who are very generous aren’t so just to get a tax deduction. It has to do partly with each country’s model of who funds the things that make for a rich civic environment. In the US, all our great museums, zoos, aquariums and so on are heavily, heavily funded by private contributions. That’s the funding model here. 

Now, to your question of whether there are enough financial resources for philanthropic contributions in Chile, I would say that yes, of course. Chile is very successful economically and there are individuals who have enough resources to make some wonderful things happen. All that’s required is for them to learn more about what they can create through their generosity.

My main message is that providing charitable gifts to create something that makes the world a better place is hugely rewarding. Now, that doesn’t happen overnight but Chile, which is a leader in many other fields, could for example also become a leader in marine education and conservation.  

Ruth Bradley is a freelance journalist based in Santiago and a former editor of bUSiness CHILE.