Dispatches from Chile

The time for ocean acidification action is now

Opportunity. Partnership. Coordination. We repeatedly heard these inspiring, forward-looking ideas last week in Chile. Along with United States shellfish growers, ocean acidification experts and members of Washington State Governor’s office, we participated in a series of visits and meetings with our Chilean counterparts to share knowledge and explore adaptive solutions to acidification. It was a welcome note of hope after the sobering realities highlighted by the IPCC’s Special Report on Oceans and the Cryosphere, released on September 25.

Our trip was designated an official “pre-COP” event as part of the lead-up to the “Blue COP” Chile is hosting this December, which is the 25th convening of the United Nation’s yearly climate change conference. But this year the meeting will have an explicit ocean focus.

We set out on our trip planning to share information on how Washington State first noticed and felt the impacts of ocean acidification, as well as the solutions and proactive opportunities the United States shellfish aquaculture industry now uses to counter this threat. We also wanted to hear about the changes to ocean health that Chilean scientists, fishermen and aquaculture workers are seeing and dealing with. To do so, we stopped in Quintay, Viña del Mar, Puerto Montt and Santiago to visit research stations, small-scale fisheries, government ministries and universities.

Our first stop was the CIMARQ lab in Quintay, a former whaling station turned research facility, where CIMARQ Director, Dr. Juan Manuel Estrada, explained how the lab raises sea urchins to later release into the ocean to restore the local ecosystem and sustain small-scale fishing activities. It’s particularly exciting to see that the laboratory involves local small-scale fishermen in every step of the process.


Next, we saw the opening of the hake fishery at the Caleta el Membrillo, a small-scale fishing collective in Viña del Mar. The president of the caleta, Manuel Rojas, proudly told us not only about their business model and day-to-day operations, but also how the caleta supports local festivals and soccer games. After our first two stops we could already see how important small-scale fishermen are to local economies and cultures.


One of our final fisheries stops was at a mussel farm near Puerto Montt. There we saw mussel farmers collecting young wild juvenile mussels to take them to Chiloe Island and grow them to full-size. The mussel growers were particularly intrigued by the United States model of relying heavily on hatcheries instead of wild populations to produce a reliable supply of young shellfish.


During our conversations with fishermen and scientists across Chile, it was clear that ocean conditions are undeniably changing. Quintay fishermen have seen a progressive decline in wild sea urchin size due to fishing and ocean warming. The president of the Caleta el Membrillo has seen unusual species like manta rays entering the area, and season opening and closing times are changing. And Puerto Montt mu“““““““ssel growers said they noticed the mussels aren’t holding on as well to the culture ropes as they once did. There’s laboratory work showing that mussel threads become weaker from ocean acidification, but we don’t know yet if that’s the culprit in Chile. Chilean scientists agreed we need to know more about the interaction of ocean acidification and other climate-driven changes in Chilean waters and how they affect species important to the economy, culture and ocean ecosystems.


Already, Chile is beginning to address ocean acidification with a variety of actions. Research to detect and monitor changes in ocean acidity is underway. In the Puerto Montt region, research and monitoring shows that during certain portions of the year chemical conditions cause a decrease in the amount of calcium carbonate in the water, which bivalve shellfish rely on to form hard shells. Laboratory studies also show that ocean acidification alters the amount of energy important shellfish species (such as the Chilean mussel) use, decreasing their odds of survival.  On a hopeful note, an estuarine mussel species native to Chile seems unaffected by ocean acidification. Yet more work is needed to fully understand how important Chilean shellfish and finfish species in the wild will respond. Another hopeful note is that Chilean natural and social scientists are collaborating to engage small-scale seaweed and kelp harvesters as citizen scientists in nearby Caleta el Manzano, yielding an engaged group of coastal advocates who are invested in the health and well-being of their environment.

After hearing from our Chilean hosts, our United States delegation shared how the swift and strong United States response to ocean acidification occurred, emphasizing the critical role of partnerships and long-term thinking. Ocean acidification has brought together an incredible array of different people in the United States and built new partnerships. Shellfish growers are in daily contact with natural scientists. Indigenous groups and business leaders are collaborating on future-proofing their fisheries. Policymakers consult with environmental advocates, scientists, national agencies and more to develop new policies. These trusted partnerships grew over 10-15 years and have been remarkable at creating a unified chorus of champions, who aren’t waiting for more losses to happen before acting. In Chile, scientists are taking the lead on building partnerships and networks. They are active in the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON), the Latin American Ocean and Coastal Acidification (LAOCA) Network and the International Ocean Acidification Coordination Centre (OA-ICC). Partnerships among scientists and interested citizens as well as the fishing community are growing, as we saw in Quintay.

We also shared how important long-term thinking has been for addressing ocean acidification. Most scientific research projects, task forces and the like have a limited duration of maybe one to three years. Yet the monitoring required to detect and follow ocean acidification requires decades-long investments. In the United States, 10 years of coordinated ocean acidification work was kicked off with one law, FOARAM, which provided for an ongoing response. In parallel, Chile was one of the founding members of the International Alliance to Combat Ocean Acidification, committing to creating partnerships, sharing best practices, developing sustained engagement and identifying locally appropriate actions to adapt to the ocean acidification impacts we can’t avoid. The COP25 motto says it’s “time for action.” We are proud to have been part of the early steps of ocean acidification action in Chile.


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