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Oceana Magazine Winter 2011: A Pacific Gem, Protected

By Emily Fisher

Following an expedition by Oceana and partners, Chile announced the creation of the fourth largest ‘no take’ marine reserve in the world.

In early October, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced the creation of a 58,000 square mile marine reserve around Sala y Gómez Island, an uninhabited patch of land near Easter Island in the Pacific Ocean, over 2,000 miles west of Chile, that has been called one of the world’s last untouched marine places.

As the world’s fourth-largest no-take marine reserve, the highest level of protection for an ocean ecosystem, the waters around Sala y Gómez will be protected from fishing and all other commercial activities.

The announcement came as a direct result of Oceana’s work in the region. In March, Oceana, National Geographic and the Waitt Foundation embarked on a preliminary expedition to Sala y Gómez. The expedition was almost canceled because of complications caused by Chile’s enormous 8.8-magnitude earthquake in late February.

The expedition’s scientific team included Dr. Carlos Gaymer, biology professor from La Universidad Católica del Norte, Michel García, a resident diver of Easter Island and a former member of Jacques Cousteau’s team and Matthias Gorny, science director for  Oceana in Chile. The scientists saw a diversity of marine wildlife, and noted that some species were far more abundant than in neighboring Easter Island.

“This is directly due to the pristine nature of a place that has been isolated from fishing and tourism, which have had destructive impacts on the marine ecosystems of Easter Island,” Gorny said. Sala y Gómez Island is part of a chain of seamounts ranging from 8.4 to 13.1 million years old, which have been identified as hosting deep-sea stony corals and sponge fields. The area also contains the highest density of the Galápagos shark anywhere in Chile.

The expedition team identified red corals that have never been seen in the area around Easter Island, and the Easter Island butterfly fish, which is endemic to Chile. Using a remotely operated vehicle, the group also recorded the first ever high-definition images of the seabed, more than 100 meters deep.

Following the expedition, and after considerable advocacy work by Oceana and National Geographic, the fisheries committee of the Chilean Senate recommended establishing a 417, 000 square kilometer (160,000 square mile) marine protected area around the island in August.

With President Piñera’s decision, Chile’s total marine protected area ballooned from 0.03 percent of the nation’s ocean to 4.41 percent. Meanwhile, less than 2 percent of the global ocean is currently protected, although the Parties to the UN Convention on Biological  Diversity – including Chile – agreed to protect 10 percent of their exclusive economic zones by 2012.

While the designation is a huge victory for Chile and the ocean, Oceana is hopeful that the Chilean government will expand the Sala y Gómez Marine Park to 200 nautical miles, which would cover all the seamounts in the island’s exclusive economic zone.

Oceana and National Geographic are planning a follow-up expedition to the island in 2011 to develop a baseline of biological information and survey the seamounts that are not included in the current park.

Dr. Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and National Geographic Ocean Fellow who joined Oceana’s expedition to the island, noted the importance of proactively protecting places like Sala y Gómez.

"By carefully studying the function of marine ecosystems without human intervention, we can help recover those that are damaged and generally better preserve the oceans that cover more than two thirds of our planet,” he said.