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Illegal fishing threatens Easter Island’s natural resources

  • Plastic pollution on the island exceeds permissible levels for sustainable management.
  • The Chilean government established Motu Hiva Motiro Marine Park near Easter Island in 2010, but officials say it has no official management plan.
  • The Rapa Nui community has proposed an alternative conservation plan for the area.

Simon Pakarati recalled how as a child he used to fish with hooks that would constantly get stuck on the rocks off the shore of Easter Island (Rapa Nui, as locals call the island and themselves) because he did not have a float that prevented the lures from sinking. This changed when plastic debris began appearing along the coast.

“‘Oh good!’ I said, ‘I have a float now,’ ” Pakarati told Mongabay Latam. “I would tie plastics to the fishing line and not lose my hooks, but then I realized it was full of trash.” But plastic he was once excited for has now become his enemy. Pakarati said he and his colleagues now work to remove the debris that washes up on the beach, collecting up to eight tons of plastic every day on just one side of the island.

While plastic trash has become more abundant, the island’s offshore tuna stocks have plummeted. Pakarati attributes both to industrial fishing activities.

“Since the year 2000 we started to lose tuna, which is the basis of the fishing on the island, so then we began to take the fish from the shore to feed our families, but in less than two years we depleted all of it,” Pakarati said.

Fishers of Rapa Nui, like Simon Pakarati, are afraid that large fishing companies install on the island and use the place just for money, without properly caring for nature. Photo by Pablo Hernández Mares

The local fishing fleet of Rapa Nui is artisanal. It is comprised of small vessels that average about seven meters (23 feet) long, which are crewed by one or two people. They catch fish individually, in contrast to many of the large industrial vessels that use nets to harvest tons of fish, illuminating the sea around them with bright lights that locals can see on the horizon.

Pakarati and conservationists say that many of these boats are fishing illegally.

“We help the Chilean government and the community of Easter Island do an analysis of fishing vessels from around the world that come to their waters. We were able to develop technology to identify illegal vessels and do something about it,” Seth Horstmeyer, director of Global Ocean Legacy — a program of The Pew Charitable Trusts and their partners — told Mongabay Latam.

The tuna is the most commercially valuable species of the illegal fishery. According to Horstmeyer, illegal fishing is a global business with profits of $23.5 billion annually.

“We have software that can monitor where the boats go; if they move slowly and are zigzagging they are probably fishing, and they are not supposed to be there so you can send the navy after them, or you can wait for them to arrive at the port and stop them there, because there is an agreement signed by thirty nations to identify illegal fisheries,” he said.

Map with vessels suspected of illegal fishing in 2012 and 2013. Image courtesy of The PEW Charitable Trusts

The proposal of a marine protected area

Easter Island is a territory of Chile. In 2010, during the administration of former Chilean president Sebastian Piñera, the Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park was created 400 kilometers (250 miles) off the coast of the island, granting official protection to approximately 150 thousand square kilometers. The park’s creation came after surveys found high levels of biodiversity in the region.

The park has attracted criticism from current governmental administrators and members of the Rapa Nui community.

“The park does not have a management plan,” Diego Flores Arrate, head of the Department of Protected Areas of the Chilean Ministry of Environment, told Mongabay Latam during the IUCN’s recent World Conservation Congress. “That impulsive administrative act [of creating the park] by the president effectively created a conflict with the Rapa Nui because they were not asked, the government did not consult them, they went ahead and created an area, something that is resented by [the Rapa Nui] until today.”

In response, more than 20 organizations consisting of fishers, gatherers, divers, farmers, artisans and conservationists submitted a marine conservation proposal to the Chilean government urging the creation of a system that they say is closer to implementation reality and the worldview of the Rapa Nui culture.

The waters around Easter Island are home to a thriving ecosystem. Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

“We believe it is necessary to create a marine protected area that follows international standards so that we can receive funds from abroad to maintain and protect our island,” Sebastián Yancovic Pakarati, founder of Easter Island’s Conservación Marina, told Mongabay Latam.

Department of Protected Areas head Diego Flores Arrate said the proposal is currently undergoing review by indigenous communities.

“[The proposal] is a text that establishes the island’s operation and in the last chapter discusses conservation areas, where [the Rapa Nui] will have, if this becomes law someday, power to decide how they want to practice conservation….They want to do it in their own ways, with their own Rapa Nui denominations,” Flores Arrate said.

If the proposal is approved, this marine protected area would be one of the largest in South America. Photo courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

The government would also have a say in management, according to Yancovic Pakarati.

“We not only want to manage these protected areas but to expand them, with the community keeping control in a co-management with the state, each with different skills but with the possibility of sitting at the table and making decisions,” Yancovic Pakarati said.

Officials at monitoring agencies are also concerned about the role – or lack thereof – indigenous communities are allowed to play in protecting their environment.

“That’s the real challenge of fishery management in the 21st century; for example, in Hawaii, those marine areas are closed and exclude local fishers,” said Christopher Hawkins, from the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council — which represents American Samoa, Guam, Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands. “Who will take their place keeping watch if foreign fishing boats come near? The Coast Guard does not have the necessary resources to do so, the same with the Rapa Nui who see boats’ lights in the distance; but, who will come and help them get those boats away from there?

“We hope some technology comes to our rescue with drones, satellites, and even with some remote marine boats that have cameras at the tip of the mast and are sailing all these areas detecting through video and radar the vessels which should not be fishing in those places,” Hawkins said. He added that indigenous people of the Pacific islands had sustainable fishing systems three to four thousand years ago that could be replicated.

An island of plastic

“The issue of plastic pollution is terrible in Rapa Nui, we are in the middle of the South Pacific, which concentrates all the plastic floating from Chile and Peru on one side and Oceania on the other,” said Sebastian Yancovic Pakarati, who recounted how it is common to find plastic debris inside the stomach of dead birds and fish.

Still, there are movements towards conservation progress. Recently, the community signed an agreement with a Chilean airline that has agreed to help remove garbage from the island by transporting it to the South American mainland on outgoing tourist flights.

Organizations like The Pew Charitable Trusts pushed a motion that was passed by the IUCN Congress to protect 30 percent of the ocean because currently only three percent is protected worldwide.

Next year, Chile will host the 4th International Marine Protected Areas Congress (IMPAC4), held September 4-8 in La Serena, Chile.

“It’s a great opportunity to share experiences, learn from each other and advance the political agenda of creating marine protected areas in Latin America,” Flores Arrate said.

A protected area like a marine park can serve as a conservation tool for unique species in those ecosystems. Image courtesy of The Pew Charitable Trusts

Despite the waves of plastic washing up on Easter Island’s beaches and illegal fishing along its coast, Pakarati, Horstmeyer and others concerned with the island’s preservation have not lost hope that the situation can be reversed – and in a way that may benefit ecological and indigenous communities alike.

“Every day container ships arrive at Easter Island carrying necessary resources because there are not enough on the islands; with conservation we can have a more sustainable community on the island, if we protect certain areas and allow the reproduction of species and their growth there will be more opportunity for Easter Island and others to become more self-sufficient,” said Seth Horstmeyer.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Latin America (Latam) team and was first published in Spanish on our Latam site on September 14, 2016.


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