Designing Conservation for Birds and People 

Natalia Martínez-Curci 2019 Coastal Solutions Fellow Natalia, a shorebird ecologist from Argentina, created and tested best practices for shorebird conservation on the seaweed farms of Chile’s Chiloé archipelago. 

The success of my project depended on working alongside, and together with, the indigenous communities, understanding how they farm seaweed, making sure they could continue to do so, and watching their interactions with the Caulín Bay shorebirds. Conservation measures work only when we understand the whole picture, human and avian.

— Natalia Martínez-Curci 

When Natalia Martínez-Curci learned about Coastal Solutions Fellows, the program was still an aspiration for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. 

Then-executive director John Fitzpatrick was planting seeds with young professionals to gauge their interest in the prospective program. Fitzpatrick crossed paths with Natalia as she was finishing her PhD studying shorebirds in Samborombón Bay near Buenos Aires. Natalia knew shorebird ecology was her calling, but she was feeling uncertain about her next career move.

“Hearing the program description for the first time was eye-opening,” recalls Natalia. “A post-doc program focusing on the Pacific Flyway felt like the perfect way to keep working in academia—and to work on more than just research. 

Under the project’s best practices agreement, the Mapuche communities of Chiloé will improve the management of the 7,000 acres of Caulín Bay

I had the opportunity to consider a broader view of conservation and understand strategies for modifying human impact on species. That’s the moment I knew this fellowship would show the way forward.” 

Red Knots by Mark Chappell / Macaulay Library

Going beyond science alone

As Natalia began thinking about a Coastal Solutions project, her PhD research led her to Caulín Bay, a winter home for many shorebirds. The Bay is also the site of seaweed aquaculture that plays a key role in the lives of the indigenous communities. 

Natalia designed a project to assess how this aquaculture impacts the wellbeing of the Caulín Bay shorebirds. Her thoughtful approach immediately jumped off the page for application reviewers. But they returned to her with a request: expand your proposal beyond ecology and include the local community. 

“This forced me out of my comfort zone,” Natalia says. “I thought about how to include the Mapuche-Williche Wente Kaulin and Huenque Caulín communities. What could I learn from their farming practices? How could we partner? Would they sign a management agreement?”

Natalia assembled an interdisciplinary team of sociologists, biologists, and ornithologists to develop a conservation plan for both people and shorebirds. And she forged relationships that afforded a look inside indigenous aquaculture practices, passed from generation to generation. 

“I visited community members and worked with them on the beach,” says Natalia. “I talked about what I was doing, taught them to birdwatch, and listened closely to their concerns and ways of working. It takes time to build trust.”

Gaining trust, finding harmony

Members gradually welcomed the team into their community. Research findings spanned the purely scientific, such as the value of preserving uncultivated intertidal zones, and insights born from working alongside the community—learning, for example, that dogs accompanying the farmers frequently interrupted birds’ feeding routines. 

Every Coastal Solutions project seeks long-term sustainability. Few formalize it as happened on May 27, 2023. All partners, including community leaders and Universidad Austral de Chile signed an agreement establishing best-management practices for seaweed farming in Caulín Bay. Thanks to Natalia’s approach, the indigenous communities in the bay can now steward community-led conservation for generations of shorebirds.

Coastal Solutions has changed everything for me. No other 

organization in Latin America to my knowledge undertakes 

conservation in such an inclusive, interdisciplinary way. Now I think differently, and I see in my studentsthe same desire. This is how change happens.

—Natalia Martínez-Curci

Local leaders expressed an appreciation for their responsibilities. “We are privileged to have the wonderful birds of Caulín,” says Cristian Raimilla, president of the Huenque Caulín community. “As an indigenous community, we are very happy with this work and it didn’t cost us much at all economically. But this won’t continue to work unless we as human beings are conscientious, unless we create awareness and teach our children, unless we find happiness in seeing how our birds are doing.”

Natalia is also thinking about the future and putting into practice what she learned as she teaches students at the Universidad de Mar del Plata in Argentina.

Coastal Solutions Fellowship Program

The Coastal Solutions Fellows Program builds and supports an international community to design and implement solutions that address coastal challenges across the Pacific Americas Flyway. Our main goal is to conserve coastal habitats and shorebird populations by building the knowledge, resources, and skills of Latin American professionals, and by fostering collaborations among multiple disciplines and sectors.