- 500 kilometers off the Pacific coast of Colombia lies Malpelo Island, a barren rock that marks the center of the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary World Heritage Site and is renowned for its biodiversity, especially its shark population.
- It was Malpelo’s world-class diving that first brought French-Colombian marine naturalist Sandra Bessudo to the island. Moved by its biodiversity as well as the threats from overfishing and damaging tourism practices, Bessudo went on to become Malpelo’s best-known advocate, founding the Malpelo Foundation and successfully pushing for the island’s listing as a World Heritage Site in 2006.
- Bessudo has also produced dozens of publications and documentaries, served as Colombia’s environment minister and a presidential advisor, and influenced conservation policy through her marine research.
- Bessudo spoke about her marine conservation efforts, the challenges facing oceans, and other topics during a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
500 kilometers (310 miles) off the Pacific coast of Colombia lies Malpelo Island, a barren rock that marks the center of the Malpelo Fauna and Flora Sanctuary World Heritage Site. While Malpelo is virtually devoid of vegetation larger than a shrub, it is considered a biological treasure for its rich population of seabirds and marine megafauna, especially sharks.
It was Malpelo’s world-class diving that first brought French-Colombian marine naturalist Sandra Bessudo to the island in the late 1980s. Moved by its biodiversity as well as the threats from overfishing and damaging tourism practices, Bessudo went on to become Malpelo’s best-known advocate, founding the Malpelo Foundation and successfully pushing for the island’s listing as a World Heritage Site in 2006. Since then, Malpelo’s protected area has expanded by more than 1.7 million hectares and the Malpelo Foundation has gone on to establish a range of conservation and livelihood programs in the Colombian Pacific. Today Malpelo is the largest no-fishing zone in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.
Beyond her work at the Malpelo Foundation, Bessudo has produced dozens of publications and documentaries, served as Colombia’s environment minister and a presidential advisor, and influenced conservation policy through her marine research. Today Bessudo is one of the world’s most prominent ocean conservationists, for which she has won many accolades and honors.
Bessudo spoke about her marine conservation efforts, the challenges facing oceans, and other topics during a recent interview with Mongabay founder Rhett A. Butler.
The interview text has been edited for clarity. Mongabay-Latam’s Antonio Paz Cardona assisted with the interview.
AN INTERVIEW WITH SANDRA BESSUDO
What inspired your interest in conservation and the environment?
From a very young age, my parents instilled in me a respect for nature and animals. That was my first introduction
How did your career path develop?
I started as a diving instructor. I dove in many places but in 1987 I visited Malpelo and encountered its wonderful biodiversity, but also damage from ships dropping anchors on its coral reefs and boats with decks full of dead sharks. That experience mobilized me to push the government to protect the area as a sanctuary for fauna and flora.
Malpelo was declared a protected area in 1995, but it had new resources to actually protect the area. In response, we established the Malpelo Foundation and set up a management agreement with the national park administrator. This step made it easier for me to get financial resources to support conservation programs within the sanctuary.
One of the ecotourism programs we established was to install mooring bolts so that the boats did not drop their anchors on the reef.
We also have a research and monitoring program. Since 2000 we have conducted and led more than 40 scientific expeditions, involving researchers working on topics ranging from coral health to birds to monitoring megafauna like sharks. I am in charge of the monitoring program for sharks and large pelagic species.
The education and communications program is important as well. Obviously communicating and educating is very important if you want to obtain resources on an ongoing basis for the program.
You’ve worked in government, academia, the private sector, and civil society. How have your experiences outside traditional conservation influenced your work as a conservationist?
I had a stint in the high government as minister of the environment. At the time, the ministry was also attached to housing, which is a subject I know little about. So one of my tasks was to support the process of separating the Ministry of the Environment from the Ministry of Housing to make the environment a cross-cutting axis for Colombia’s entire development policy.
Today in Colombia, the issues of biodiversity and the environment are increasingly important and therefore taken into account in decision-making. I worked as minister of the environment for two years and then became director of the Presidential Agency for International Cooperation. In that role, I had the opportunity to work across not only all ministries but also all cities and departments on these issues.
After four years in the government, I returned to running the Malpelo foundation, which expanded beyond Malpelo to include other marine protected areas.
Some of the data collected from the scientific expeditions using satellite and acoustic telemetry used to justify the expansion of Malpelo, including adding 1.7 million hectares to the sanctuary in 2017.
These experiences have given me many allies in conservation, which facilitates coordination and partnerships between different stakeholders.
You played a central role in the establishment of the Isla Malpelo Flora and Fauna Sanctuary, which went on to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. What were the key elements to making that effort a success?
As I mentioned earlier, the thing that inspired my work in Malpelo was a diving trip where I saw destructive practices that affected the ecosystem. Witnessing these practices led me to start collecting signatures to petition President Gaviria to declare Malpelo as a protected area.
Later my research revealed a new species of deep water shark, Odontaspis ferox, near Malpelo. That was followed by a documentary for French TV which revealed illegal fishing in the area. That documentary won a conservation prize awarded by UNESCO, which led me to ask UNESCO how Malpelo could be designated as a World Heritage Site. UNESCO told me the Colombian government has to make a request, so I started working on the process, using the research conducted at Malpelo to support the bid.
After five years of work, we presented the case for Malpelo and in 2006 it was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
How is the Malpelo area faring today?
I believe that today Malpelo is recognized not only nationally but internationally as one of the most important sites for advanced diving to see large school species, hammerhead sharks, silky sharks, and whale sharks.
I believe that if we hadn’t taken the steps we took at the time, starting in the late 1980s and working into the 2000s, the sanctuary would not be in as good a state as it is today. But we must continue to support Malpelo. The work is not done.
Last year there was much news about Chinese fishing fleets exploiting the waters around the Galapagos. What do you see as a way to address this issue?
The Chinese fishing fleet operating around the Galapagos Islands is a problem because there are many ships and few rules, since most of the fishing is in international waters. Therefore, the need is for stronger international conventions and agreements that govern fishing in these areas.
I would like to see sensitive parts of the high seas closed to certain activities.
As long as it is not possible to have agreements and regulations that extend beyond countries’ territorial waters, it will be very difficult to protect endangered species.
You’ve been working on ocean issues since at least the late 1980s. What’s different now compared to back then?
Indeed, I have worked for many years on conservation of marine life. I believe there is much more awareness today. This awareness includes recognition of the importance of healthy ecosystems as well as the problem of overfishing and illegal fishing. People are much more aware of issues like shark finning and extinction.
I also believe that the importance of maintaining the health of strategic ecosystems like mangroves, coral reefs, sea grass, and seamounts is increasingly recognized. This awareness makes it possible to explain to people that bad practices in far away places like cities can affect these ecosystems.
Lastly, conservation areas need to be created and expanded in partnership with communities. There are lots of opportunities for community management areas.
I’ve traveled to a range of countries around the world and to me, Colombia seems to be one of the most progressive when it comes to environmental awareness and concern about the environment. Why is that?
Well, I believe that Colombia has realized the importance of its biodiversity and the environment. Colombia has the most biodiversity per square kilometer, which is something we can be proud of.
There are great opportunities for sustainable development in caring for Colombia’s terrestrial and marine ecosystems.
We’re facing a range of environmental challenges. What concerns you most?
What worries me most is the destruction and that this destruction is taking place at an accelerating pace, both on land and in the seas. Lack of controls is very concerning when it comes to matters such as deforestation and overfishing. Poverty and consumption are challenges.
For the ocean, the most important thing is to prohibit fishing gear that is destructive and threatens the food security of coastal communities and marine health.
What would you say to young people who are distressed about the current trajectory of the planet?
I would tell the young people who are anguished by the current trajectory of the planet to be aware, to understand, and to know that without a healthy environment human wellbeing will also be compromised.
Adopting best practices, being consistent with our actions, and calling out malpractice are all important. People must not sit in silence as this destruction unfolds; they need to be actively seeking solutions and working to reduce the environmental damage to our planet.
How can people support or get involved with your work?
For anyone who wants to support our work, we have the Malpelo foundation. They can support us economically, which helps the many programs that require financial resources to run. Examples include shark breeding, supporting communities on the Pacific coast, research and monitoring, and environmental education.
We have many programs of which we need financial resources to continue working, we are working in areas of shark breeding, with the communities of the Pacific coast, so all environmental education issues, with the communities, research and monitoring issues.