- The proposed marine park would comprise 631,368 square kilometers (243,630 square miles) and protect breeding grounds for many species, including tuna, sharks, marlins, and swordfish.
- Easter Island's waters are also home to 142 endemic species, 27 of which are threatened or endangered, including bluefin tuna and leatherback sea turtles.
- The marine park will help combat illegal fishing in the area.
Already known the world over for its famous moai statues, Easter Island might soon become just as recognized for ocean conservation.
Chilean president Michelle Bachelet has announced a new marine park to be established off the coast of Easter Island, 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) west of mainland Chile in the waters of the South Pacific.
Comprising some 631,368 square kilometers (243,630 square miles), the new marine park will be the third-largest protected ocean area in the world, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, which worked with the Rapa Nui, the indigenous people of Easter Island, on the proposal that led to the announcement by President Bachelet.
The Rapa Nui proposed the park as a means to combat illegal fishing and protect the diversity of life teeming in the waters off the island’s shores, including 142 endemic species and 27 endangered or critically endangered species, among them bluefin tuna and leatherback sea turtles. The park will also allow the Rapa Nui to continue traditional fishing practices in an area that extends 50 nautical miles from the shore, according to Pew.
Pedro Edmunds Paoa, Easter Island’s mayor, said that the marine park will not only conserve the many species living in the waters of Easter Island, but also the traditions of the Rapa Nui people and their Polynesian ancestors.
“The park will be complemented by a fishing area that will allow our ancient practice of tapu—or smart fisheries management—to endure,” Paoa said. “The ocean is the basis of our culture and our livelihood. The Rapa Nui community is immensely proud of this marine park, which will protect our waters for generations to come.”
The Rapa Nui now must finalize their proposal through a consultation process involving the entire community, Pew says. President Bachelet, in announcing her government’s support for the proposal, said that creation of the marine park will only move forward if it is approved by the local indigenous community.
The waters of Easter Island have not been the subject of extensive study — Pew calls them “largely unexplored” — but they are known to be a biodiversity hotspot and to contain the only hydrothermal vents in Chilean waters. Something of an oasis in a nutrient-poor part of the ocean, the waters surrounding the island are an important spawning ground for many species, including tuna, sharks, marlins, and swordfish — which has also made them a target of illegal fishing vessels.
According to the Guardian, fishermen from Easter Island have said that illegal industrial fishing vessels are stealing their tuna, and satellite analysis by NGOs has indicated that more than two-dozen potentially illegal fishing vessels have been observed in the area over the course of a year.
The park will help deter the poachers plying the waters off Easter Island, Pew said, because all extractive activity will be prohibited, making illegal fishing vessels much easier to identify.
“Creation of the Easter Island park protects one of the last near-pristine ocean wildernesses on Earth, and one that holds great cultural, religious, and economic importance to the Rapa Nui people,” Joshua Reichert, who leads environment initiatives at Pew, said in a statement. “It is both a triumph for the Rapa Nui and for the government of President Bachelet.”
According to Pew, recognition of the importance of protected marine reserves has been growing since the United States declared the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument northwest of Hawaii almost 10 years ago. With this latest announcement, 2015 is shaping up to be a banner year for protection of ocean ecosystems and marine life.
Last March, the British government announced the creation of the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve, which will abut the Easter Island marine park to the west. On Sept. 28, New Zealand announced the creation of a protected ocean sanctuary in the Kermadecs, about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) northeast of the country’s North Island.
As for the Easter Island marine park, Dona Bertarelli, chair of the Bertarelli Foundation, which provided research and other assistance in the creation of the park proposal, said in a statement that she expects the impacts to be far-reaching.
“Rebuilding ocean resilience through protected areas is a crucial contribution to wider ocean health, in addition to securing the unique habitats of Easter Island for future generations.”