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Oceana Magazine Summer 2012: Troubled Tuna

By Emily Fisher

Easter Island is one of the world’s most isolated places.

With an area of only 64 square miles, it lies in the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles west of mainland Chile, and is famous for its iconic, gigantic stone statues, known by the local Rapa Nui community as moai.

The island is also recognized by some as a cautionary tale in environmental collapse. Some scholars, including author Jared Diamond, believe the island’s forests and soil became so depleted that the island’s ancient society collapsed in a struggle over diminishing natural resources.

Today Oceana and our allies in the area are working to prevent history from repeating itself, this time in the waters surrounding the island. Oceana has been working to expand the Motu Motiro Hiva marine reserve around Salas y Gómez Island, next to Easter Island. In addition, the campaign has been working to create a smaller marine reserve in Hanga Roa Bay off Easter Island, and has proposed the closure of all of its waters to industrial fishing. These new measures would protect the area’s  fisheries and marine resources, which have been depleted in recent decades.

In the process, this year Oceana has pulled back the curtain on a secret plan to aggressively fish this already depleted area under the guise of research.

According to records Oceana obtained last year, Chile’s Universidad del Mar asked for a permit to conduct “research fishing”  in Easter Island’s waters via four Japanese longline ships. Each ship would use fishing lines more than 60 miles long with nearly 3,000 hooks each to target the area’s prime catch: yellowfin tuna.

Yellowfin tuna has been a source of income for the Rapa Nui people, but it has suffered substantial declines in recent years and is listed by the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a species to avoid when caught by international longlines. The scarcity of tuna has become so dire, in fact, that Easter Island now imports most of its tuna from Tahiti.

As Oceana investigated the matter of the research fishing in Easter Island, things got murkier. In the past, the Chilean government had turned over documents to Oceana in response to requests for information, but this time they refused.

Finally, after more pressure from Oceana, the government released information to Oceana, but one very important document was missing: the contract between the Japanese company and the Universidad del Mar. This omission led Oceana to believe that the University potentially was profiting from research fishing, which is a not-for-profit activity in the country.

Oceana filed a formal complaint for the denial of public information before the Chilean Council for Transparency. The Council ruled in favor of Oceana and forced the government to disclose the contract. In addition, Oceana discovered that the Japanese had offered to pay the University $120,000 for the original research permit.

“It’s an open secret that research fishing in Chile has been used as a way of increasing fishing quotas artificially, as much in industrial fishing as in artisanal fishing,” said Alex Muñoz, Oceana’s Vice President for South America. “In a big portion of the cases there is no real research done in relation to the permits. If these permits had been granted, the impacts would have been devastating for Easter Island.”

In addition, the research permits do not apply otherwise mandatory conservation measures. For example, the normal restrictions on mackerel are not required of mackerel research fishermen. Recently, Chilean government officials visited Easter Island to meet with local fishermen and express their support to expand the existing no-take zone around Salas y Gomez Island and for the proposal to create a marine reserve area in Hanga Roa Bay in Easter Island.

Officials also reassured local fishermen that they would not grant research permits for proposed “research fishing” of tuna. Oceana and the Rapa Nui community were relieved to have won the battle, but remain vigilant. The Universidad del Mar dropped all of its requests for research fishing permits after being exposed by Oceana. “This decision shows two lessons: our country can do better in administering its  fishery resources, and that civil societycan play a critical role in scrutinizing and improving that task,” said Muñoz.