How Earth Law Can Help Cetaceans in Uruguay


An Interview with Rodrigo García Píngaro

By Madeline Bol

The new partnership between Earth Law Center (ELC) and Organización para la Conservación de Ceteaceos (OCC) aims to improve the effectiveness and implementation of marine conservation. To explore what this means, ELC spoke with Rodrigo García Píngaro, OCC’s Executive Director.

ELC: Thank you for speaking with us today, Rodrigo and let me just say how delighted we are to be partnering with OCC. Let’s start by getting some background on why cetaceans play such a critical role in the health of ocean ecosystems.

RGP: Thank you. Let’s define Cetacea first. This class of wide-ranging and diverse aquatic mammals includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. Often referred to as keystone or umbrella species, cetaceans often provide the drive to protect large water areas thus also protecting the many species that co-exist in those waters.

ELC: So tell me more about the Sanctuary itself.

RGP: After a ten-year campaign, Uruguay adopted law 19.128 in September 2013, which designated the country’s territorial and economic zone waters as a sanctuary for whales and dolphins. The law includes not just the territorial sea but also the economic zone that is exclusive to Uruyguay and prohibits the chasing, hunting, catching, fishing, or subjecting of cetaceans to any process by which they are transformed. 

The law also includes a prohibition against the transportation and unloading of live whales and dolphins, irrespective of whether the vessels sail under Uruguayan or foreign flags. The law also takes into account cases of harassment, aggression, or any other mistreatment that could lead to the death of cetaceans. 

ELC: We know that all cetaceans play critical roles in ocean ecosystems, what about Uruguay makes this law especially critical?

RGP: Thousands of species of whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, fish, and sea birds call the Uruguayan “Sanctuary for Whales and Dolphins" home - a one of a kind ecosystem.

In this region, the convergence of two major ocean currents, the Rio de la Plata estuary, “and the relatively shallow waters of the area, combine to produce a singular hydrographic system.”[1] This creates one of the most productive aquatic systems in the world, used by many demersal fish for spawning and nursing and sustains several artisanal and industrial fisheries.

As a result of this unique ocean current convergence, in Uruguay’s waters, we find 31 whale, dolphin, and porpoise species[2]. This is in addition to nearly 300 species of fish and over 200 species of sea birds. It’s not just that these species swim in the waters around Uruguay, but more importantly – many also spawn and nurse here too, as well as feed. Hence our focus to grant this area added protection.  

From August to November, whales also rest here on the calm coats of the region on their migratory journey. From the beaches of Punta del Este and Rocha, we often see these gigantic cetaceans. The southern right whale reaches the Uruguayan coast from the Antartic waters in search of warmer waters to birth and nurse their calves.

ELC: What threatens the cetaceans in these waters?

RGP: Of these many species, the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species includes 19 species of Sei Whales, 47 speices of common Threshold sharks and 30 species of Copper Sharks.

Cetaceans face numerous threats including: whaling, entanglement in fishing gear, climate change, ship strikes, toxic contamination, oil and gas development as well as habitat destruction. Without a management plan, shipping traffic and unsustainable fisheries add to the pressure on local cetacean populations.

ELC: Can you tell us more about OCC’s mission and history?

RGP: We promote awareness and educational programs to improve marine conservation efforts and create new opportunities in our communities. We apply scientific research to coastal marine habitats and use this information to protect these areas and their species.

Since we started in 2000 we have grown and we now protect at least 26 species of cetaceans in Uruguay’s waters. We are proud that in 2013 we established the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary to protect cetaceans; including the Bottlenose Dolphin, Right Whale, Killer Whale, and the endangered La Plata dolphin. Most of these species are endangered by human activity.

The La Plata dolphin, native to our coast, is on the International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. The La Plata dolphin is dying because of entanglement in gillnets put out by local fisheries.[3] With the establishment of the Sanctuary, we aim to protect species like the La Plata dolphin from such harmful human involvement.

Over the last decade, OCC has identified the major threats to marine conservation along Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, and worked hard to establish both the legislative foundations, inter-institutional and public support necessary for change. We achieved a Decree for responsible whale watching (261/02) while establishing a volunteer whale watching network to alert national coastguard officials where whales are threatened or stressed (avoiding ship-strikes); promoting the installation of viewing platforms along the coast; establishing protocols of good practice marine and certification (together Ministries and National Marine).

I’m also very excited about OCC’s achievements in connecting with the passion of primary and secondary students, who have become advocates for protecting the ocean and marine life. In 2013, a delegation met face-to-face with parliamentarians to designate Uruguay’s territorial sea as a Sanctuary for Whales and Dolphins. OCC was also instrumental in Uruguay’s return to the International Whaling Commission (IWC) after 22 years’ absence, integrating the official delegation and co-sponsorship for the wider South Atlantic Sanctuary for Whales and Dolphins.

ELC: Why did you choose to partner with ELC?

RGP: I was so excited when I first heard about Earth Law Center’s ocean initiative at the UN Ocean Conference. I immediately saw that we focus on the same things – halting the decline and restoring ocean health.

Establishing rights for the ocean is an innovative legal way to make our new marine protected area more effective. Some rivers have gained legal rights recognition, yet the ocean, covering roughly 71 percent of Earth’s surface, does not have any rights. So ours is a necessary alliance.

Recognizing nature’s rights can address issues like overfishing and endangered species. These issues are increasingly difficult to combat when ocean rights are nonexistent.

ELC: How does Earth Law support the OCC cause?

RGP: Now we are connected with ELC, OCC intends to establish legal rights and a concrete management plan for Uruguay’s Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary. Without a concrete plan, the Sanctuary cannot achieve its mission to protect marine species in both territorial and economic zone waters. Dangers include increasing threats from shipping, pollution, and non-sustainable fishing. This is where ELC’s establishment of legal rights comes in.

We have discussed with ELC several areas to strengthen the management of the Sanctuary. This includes things like: raising awareness of the fishing collapse or alerts to reduce collisions with whales; as well as minimizing seismic exploration impacts and coastal inspection of whales by unauthorized boats. By giving legal rights and activities to the individual species, we can enhance the protection of cetaceans and the ecosystem of the Sanctuary.

ELC: In addition to ELC, we understand you have built a broad network of support across many like-minded ocean conservation organizations. Who are your other key partners?

 RGP: We are very grateful for the support of:

  • Forum for the Conservation of the Patagonian Sea and Areas of Influence.
  • Red Uruguaya de ONGs Ambientalistas
  • Asociación Oceanográfica del Uruguay
  • Karumbé (Turtles Conservation)
  • Instituto Augusto Carneiro
  • Mamíferos Marinos Rio Grande Do Sul
  • Ocean Care International
  • Fundación AVINA
  • ASHOKA Entrepreneurs

ELC: Does the Sanctuary stand alone?

RGP: For background, it’s also important to know that the region all around the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary is ringed with other MPAs.

  • In Brazil, adjacent MPAs include Lagoa do Peixe and Taim Ecological Station.
  • Argentina has the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Costanera Sur Natural Park and Reserved Zone, Punta Lara Integral Natural Reserve, El Destino (P. Costero del Sur) Fundación Elsa Shaw de Pearson Private Reserve, Costero del Sur Provincial Park, Bahía de Samborombón Integral Nature Reserve, and Rincón de Ajó Integral Natural Reserve.
  • In Uruguay, MPAs include Humedales del Santa Lucia Managed Protected Area Resource, Isla de Flores National Park, Laguna de Rocha Protected Landscape, Cerro Verde Managed Protected Area Resource, Cabo Polonio National Park, and Bañados del Este y Franja Costera Wetlands of International Importance.

The Sanctuary represents the entire exclusive economic zone of Uruguay. The exclusive economic zone (EEZ) defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea over which a state has special rights to the exploration and use of marine areas.

ELC: What are your concrete goals for the management plan for the Sanctuary?

RGP: With the management plan of the Sanctuary, we have several shared objectives. We aim to:

  • Establish legal rights for the Whale and Dolphin Sanctuary and Patagonian Sea through a legally-binding management plan.
  • Create a holistic and ocean rights-based model framework for marine protected area governance.
  • Create a community-based management plan for the Sanctuary and Sea using ELC’s holistic and rights-based framework.

ELC: How responsive has the government been for marine issues?

RGP: There is very high government interest. Aside from being signed into law, the following national government agencies are involved: (1) Command of the Navy, (2) Ministry of Environment, (3) Ministry of Tourism, (4) Ministry of Defense, (5) Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, (6)  Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The regional departments of Maldonado and Rocha are also involved. This would fit in with other MPAs in Uruguay like Humedales del Santa Lucia Managed Protected Area Resource, Isla de Flores National Park, Laguna de Rocha Protected Landscape, Cerro Verde Managed Protected Area Resource, Cabo Polonio National Park, and Bañados del Este y Franja Costera Wetlands of International Importance.

This year, the environmental commission in the Senate has shown growing interest in marine issues. For the first time in history, commissioners will be going out in the community and investigate issues OCC presented, including illegal and unregulated fisheries. Current Senator, and frontrunner to become President, Luis LaCalle, offers his full support of the Sanctuary and proposed management plan.

ELC: How can the community get involved in protecting the Sanctuary?

RGP: We have set up a leadership program called “Sanctuary Guardians.” Over 900 youth and teachers join a “floating classroom” which teaches conservation techniques through hands on learning.

Then we must empower concerned citizens and small-scale fishermen to demand that officials take responsibility for marine conservation efforts and also support community values and cultural traditions. For this we are considering seeking support from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Their International Plan of Action works to establish agreements within the framework of the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries.[4]

Also, we must inform the public of our mission. We favor training talks and interviews so radio, press and television journalists get material designed for them.

We have local teams and citizens who can receive and interpret information from the Global Fishing Watch. This organization uses data published by the Automatic Identification System (AIS) to track the movement of vessels to see if fishing or non-fishing activity is taking place.   This is very important for spotting illegal and unregulated fishing. Globally, this kind of fishing puts ecosystems and sustainable fisheries at risk because it operates outside of sustainability agreements.[5] I believe that co-management of these fisheries is the only way to control and stop illegal fishing activities.

ELC: What are our next steps together?

RGP: I’m confident legal rights will be accepted in the Sanctuary plan. This legal approach clearly strengthens species protection in the Sanctuary. The time frame, of course, depends on the citizens. With a strong willingness to participate and act, we can gain support of authorities and other key organizations. Once this happens, the economic support for activities needed to put the management plan into action (such as education, workshops, meetings and media communication) will follow.

ELC: Any final thoughts you’d like to share?

RGP: When you have spent as much time as I have with these lovely and graceful and intelligent creatures, you will share the sense of urgency we at OCC have to protect their well-being. Losing more cetacean species would be a tragedy for them and for us.


NB: Parts of this interview have been edited and abridged.