Project Leader

Ítalo Fernández

Ítalo Fernández

Who I am

I was born and raised in the coastal city of Viña del Mar in central Chile, where I watched documentaries about wildlife and dreamed of becoming a marine explorer. As I grew up, I realised that I had to get closer to science to achieve my childhood dream, so I decided to begin my studies as a marine biologist at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. However, while pursuing my degree, I began to understand that most of what I knew about underwater life was based on foreign species and ecosystems. I had been missing a whole world beneath the ocean’s surface in my own country. This perspective of the underwater world does not happen just to me; many people perceive the sea to be a cold and lifeless place. Chileans often struggle to regard their ocean as a living world and many have no idea of the presence of unique ecosystems, such as kelp forests, and their incredible associated life forms, such as sharks and rays (my favourite animals), even though this marine world is closer to them than they had thought.

At the Subtidal Ecology Lab (SUBELAB) I have been studying and diving in kelp forests for more than five years. Becoming a scientific diver has taught me the beauty of our marine ecosystems, their life and how we are responsible for causing extreme changes in species’ abundance and diversity. This issue brought me back to my alma mater to initiate my PhD and research sharks and rays and the importance of kelp forests for their populations. By doing this, I will generate information relevant to the conservation of them and their ecosystem and will raise awareness about Chile’s underwater life through a compelling narrative, ‘The kelp forest as a nursery ground for sharks and rays’.

Where I work

I am a PhD student based at the Estacion Costera de Investigaciones Marinas (ECIM UC) in Las Cruces, Chile. My research focuses on the cold, productive waters of the Humboldt Current System in Chile, particularly the forests of Lessonia trabeculata kelp in the Atacama and Valparaíso regions. These algae resemble Mediterranean sclerophyllous forests, with flat trees up to three metres (10 feet) high, abundant branches or ‘stipes’, and a solid base growing on rocky reefs. Its three-dimensionality enhances the coast’s biodiversity, most of which is endemic to the Humboldt Current. Various shark and ray species frequently use the kelp forest to feed and mate and to spawn on the stipes. Many of these elasmobranchs are so adapted to kelp that even their eggs take on its brown colour, mimicking it as protection from potential predators. However, these species and their nesting sites face intense habitat degradation because of human activities. Most commercial species in kelp forests, including the kelp itself, lack proper fisheries management. Artisanal fishers extract the algae from their base with a hand-spike or a tool known as a barreta and sell them for the extraction of alginic acid, which is used in food and textile industries. Currently, kelp populations are facing intense and largely unregulated harvesting. There are also reports of kelp being extracted illegally in several parts of the country. We have not yet understood the role of this keystone habitat for the species that live within it, much less the consequences of intensive extraction of kelp on the life cycles of these species.

What I do

I am a scientific diver, so most of my work involves gathering empirical data underwater by counting, measuring and describing what I encounter there. Diving in Chile is a bit tricky. First, I must put on my drysuit and add my 10-kilogram (22-pound) weight belt, then mentally prepare for the cold, murky water. Since murky water and high swells are frequent along this coast, every good climate window is an opportunity to suit up.

Currently, I am diving with my research team at various points along the Chilean coast, aiming to collect information about the health of kelp forests in exclusive access areas known as TURFs (Territorial User Rights for Fisheries), each of which has a different kelp extraction regime. Chile’s coastline is extensive, so we have much to explore and understand. This exploration enables me to identify several shark and ray nesting sites in kelp, where I record the number of eggs at each site, along with various morphological measurements of the kelp on which the eggs were laid. Not all my work is underwater, however. I often collect eggs to bring to the wet lab to study using molecular tools, trying to discover whether the mothers return multiple times a year to lay their eggs at the same site.

I love doing research underwater, but we also use other technology to understand the dynamics of kelp forest. My team has implemented acoustic telemetry technology, the first of its kind in Chile. This technology has enabled us to understand the movement of different species within a kelp forest, providing relevant data even when we are not underwater. The few individuals of red-spotted catsharks we have tagged show that they remain close to their nesting sites, which suggests that the kelp forest habitat is more critical for shark species than we thought.

My project

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