US conservationist Kristine Tompkins has hailed the creation of Argentina's first marine national parks, describing them is a milestone that brings the country closer to meeting its United Nations recommended goal for 2020.
Last Wednesday, Congress approved the creation of the "Yaganes" and "Namuncura-Banco Burdwood II" parks in Argentina's southernmost seas, covering a combined area of 39,000 square miles (101,000 square kilometres).
The measure increased Argentina'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 UN's Convention on Biological Diversity.
It also protects habitat and feeding grounds for penguins, sea lions, sharks and other marine species.
Tompkins, the former CEO of the Patagonia Inc clothing companies, 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, the lightly populated region of untamed rivers and other natural beauty that straddles southern Chile and Argentina.
Since her husband's death in a kayaking accident in 2015, Tompkins has continued donating vast swathes 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 two percent [of maritime protected areas] to nearly 10 percent now," she said, adding that although other regional countries like neighbouring 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 UN Environment Patron of Protected Areas.
Tompkins Conservation says Argentina's new marine protected areas "harbour 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.