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What's Current about Marine Currents?


The Humboldt Current

Listen to Fernando Ghersi, the Conservancy's Humboldt Current Project Manager.

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"The Conservancy’s work in the California and Humboldt currents will have conservation impacts that go far beyond the cold waters of California, Peru and Chile, and transcend to a global scale."

Fernando Ghersi
The Conservancy's Humboldt Current Project Manager.

By Marcela Torres and Kathleen Goldstein

Underneath the Pacific Ocean’s almost endless rippling waves, there is a wealth of life that flourishes beneath the surface. Like huge submarine rivers, two marine currents –the California current in the Northern Hemisphere and the Humboldt Current in the Southern Hemisphere- flow along the western coasts of North and South America.

They carry nutrient-rich cold water that feeds hundreds of fish, marine mammals and seabirds and provide livelihoods for thousands of people. These ocean environments face increasing threats, however, such as overfishing, pollution and climate change. The Nature Conservancy is working on state-of-the-art scientific models in California, Peru and Chile to protect these marine habitats that are so important for both people and nature.

What's the deal with marine currents?

Oceans play a critical role in storing heat and carbon, but patterns of ocean circulation and up-welling can change rapidly, resulting in climate variations.

The California Current has a clockwise circulation between the west coast of North America and the Hawaiian Islands. This current’s cold waters often cause summer fog near the coast, creating a moderate Mediterranean climate in California.

Something similar occurs with the Humboldt Current, which flows northward along the west coast of South America. This cold current has a cooling influence on the climate of Peru and Chile and it is also largely responsible for the coastal deserts in these countries because it diminishes rainfall. At the same time, its nutrient-rich waters support the world’s largest fishery in Peru, which accounts for 18 percent of the world fish catch, an activity based largely on a single species –the anchovy.

Lessons learned from California

The Conservancy’s teams in California and Peru have a long history of collaborating to set up marine managed areas and achieve sustainable fishing standards in the areas influenced by both marine currents. Fernando Ghersi, the Conservancy’s Humboldt Current Project Manager, acknowledges the California team’s support in transferring know-how based on lessons they’ve already learned from their work in the California Current.

The main lesson, says Ghersi, is that “all efforts to achieve conservation and a sustainable use of resources need to be part of a larger process to organize the way we use the marine space; this is what we call Marine Spatial Planning. And any management decisions regarding that use must take into account all of the stakeholders involved, including NGOs, the government, and local fishermen. As a result, this is a lengthy process”. 

Chuck Cook, Director of the Conservancy’s Coastal and Marine Program in California, adds that “finding common ground with the fishing industry to protect habitat and enhance the productivity of the fishing grounds is the best way to ensure an abundant, steady supply of seafood to coastal communities and beyond.”

State-of-the-art science

Both the California and Peru teams have received important scientific support from specialists at the University of California in Santa Barbara (UCSB). Christopher Costello, professor of Resource Economics and researcher with the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the UCSB, explains that “our extensive collaboration with The Nature Conservancy in California blossomed into other productive collaborations between the Sustainable Fisheries Group (SFG) and the Conservancy in global programs. In Peru, we look forward to working with the Conservancy’s team on spatial bio-economic approaches to marine spatial planning to simultaneously achieve economic and ecosystem benefits”.

Ghersi introduced the USCB scientists to the Marine Research Institute of Peru (IMARPE), which is in charge of enforcing fishing regulations in the country. Today, this collaboration between academia, government and the Conservancy is bearing fruits after a Fishing Observatory was created in 2009 to monitor that large fishing companies are complying with an Individual Quota System set in place by the Government of Peru.

Costello explains that “we are working with IMARPE on two projects that involve developing bio-economic models, which integrate human behavior, fishery profits, and ecosystem dynamics into a single model. We are using these models to predict the ecological and economic effects of different management strategies for anchovy. A key focus is how harvest of anchovy affects the biomass of anchovy left in the ecosystem for higher trophic level fish and seabirds.”

“The Humboldt Current is an extremely challenging environment for marine conservation worldwide,” says Ghersi. “The significant progress achieved in the past couple of years is the consequence of proper identification of strategies, adequate targeting of interventions and, most important, networking and partnerships. The Conservancy’s work in the California and Humboldt currents will have conservation impacts that go far beyond the cold waters of California, Peru and Chile, and transcend to a global scale.”


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