BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — American conservationist Kristine Tompkins said Thursday that the creation of Argentina's first marine national parks is a milestone that gets it close to meeting its U.N. recommended goal for 2020.
Argentina's Congress on Wednesday approved the "Yaganes" and "Namuncura-Banco Burdwood II" parks in the southernmost Argentine sea, covering a combined area of 39,000 square miles (101,000 square kilometers).
The measure increased the country's protected oceans to nearly 10 percent of its total territory, which is close to its commitment to the 2020 goal agreed on by the U.N.'s Convention on Biological Diversity. It also protects habitat and feeding grounds for penguins, sea lions, sharks and other marine species.
Tompkins is the widow of Doug Tompkins, a founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing companies. The couple used much of their fortune to buy huge tracts of land in Patagonia, a lightly populated region of untamed rivers and other natural beauty straddling southern Chile and Argentina.
Since his death in a kayaking accident in 2015, Tompkins has continued donating vast swaths of Argentine and Chilean lands to protect them from development. Her Tompkins Conservation group also worked with Argentina on the creation of the marine parks.
Tompkins said the new marine parks have "propelled Argentina a long way forward" in maritime preservation.
"There are sea lions, some of the biggest penguin rookeries in the hemisphere. ... It's down by the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans and where they crash against each other, so you can imagine the richness and diversity that this area has. It's very special. It's unlike any other place on Earth," she said in a telephone interview from the southern Chilean city of Puerto Varas.
"You have Antarctica coming up from the south, the Pacific from the west, the Atlantic from the east and it creates untold riches in terms of marine life."
Argentina "went from a very low 2 percent (of maritime protected areas) to nearly 10 percent now," she said, adding that although other regional countries like neighboring Chile have protected a much greater percentage of maritime areas, it still marks a watershed moment.
"Every country has to start some place and yesterday, Argentina really put it firmly on the map, and that's what counts," said Tompkins, who was recently named U.N. Environment Patron of Protected Areas.
Tompkins Conservation says Argentina's new marine protected areas "harbor continental slope waters with cold-water coral reefs, an ecosystem that is considered globally vulnerable."
Conservationists say the Namuncura-Burdwood Bank II park has deep seabed and underwater canyons with rich diversity. The Yaganes park remains mostly unexplored but it is a feeding area for endangered seabird species and is home to sei whales, fin whales and other marine species.