Nearly four hundred miles off Chile’s rugged coastline lies a hidden treasure, rivaling the Galápagos for its sheer beauty and incredible biodiversity. The Juan Fernández Islands, an archipelago of three volcanic islands among a series of seamounts, is home to scores of endemic species found nowhere else in the world, like the Juan Fernández spiny lobster and the critically endangered Firecrown hummingbird.
The Juan Fernández Islands, an archipelago located 400 miles off Chile, has been compared to the Galápagos Islands for its beauty and incredible biodiversity. Though relatively unknown, this ecosystem is under threat from unsustainable fishing practices. Oceana has made several expeditions to the Juan Fernández Islands, and is working to establish a marine reserve there. This article, which ran in our most recent magazine issue, explores the history of the Juan Fernández Islands as well as Oceana’s work to protect this ecosystem.
Our team in Chile sent us this stunning picture today from just offshore of Robinson Crusoe Island, part of the remote Juan Fernandez archipelago 400 miles West of mainland Chile. In 1704 Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk became marooned on the island, serving as the inspiration for Daniel Defoe's fictional Robinson Crusoe character (100 miles west is an another island, Alexander Selkirk Island, named in his honor).
The discovery came as a surprise to our Chilean team as dolphins are somewhat rare to the Juan Fernandez Islands. But marine life is not rare on this volcanic chain of seamounts, where nutrient rich water from the deep comes to the surface, powering a profusion of life.
Last month the Chilean senate voted to ban bottom trawling on all 118 of the country's seamounts, after years of advocacy by Oceana, a move that comes as a special relief to Juan Fernandez and its vulnerable marine inhabitants.
Learn more about about Oceana's work in South America.
It has been a whirlwind few weeks in Chile, where Oceana’s hard work has paid off in some monumental policy victories.
Last week the Chilean senate passed sweeping new fisheries regulations that, simply put, place the health of the oceans ahead of the short-term interests of the fishing industry.
After being proposed by Oceana in 2009, the Chilean senate agreed last week to close all 118 of Chile’s seamounts to bottom trawling. Seamounts are underwater mountain ranges where nutrient-rich water upwells from the deep, fueling a staggering array of biodiversity. The greatest beneficiary of these new measures will be marine life, especially that of the volcanic Juan Fernandez Islands, a remote archipelago and a regular haunt of bottom trawlers.
The new laws will also impose science-based fishing quotas and drastically reduce the incidental capture and discarding of unwanted species, known as bycatch. To do this, the new laws require improved monitoring on Chilean fishing vessels. For the bottom fishing fleet, this means that 100% of ships will require on-board observers to collect information about vulnerable marine ecosystems.
These changes would not have happened without Oceana and during the passage of this historic legislation several senators as well as the Chilean Minister of the Economy singled out our organization for special commendation.
As our executive director of Oceana in Chile, Alex Muñoz, said: “Protecting the seafloor from destructive activities, such as bottom trawling, especially in seamounts and other vulnerable marine ecosystems, is a fundamental measure for responsible fishing.”
All this comes just after President Sebastian Pinera announced he would seek to expand the Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park off of Easter Island. No larger than Washington D.C., Easter Island is the world’s most remote inhabited island on the planet—known chiefly to the rest of the world as the home of those inscrutable, stone-faced megaliths, the moai.
But the waters surrounding Easter Island hold treasures as well. Just over 200 miles to the northeast is Sala y Gómez, a desolate volcanic island - the rare mountaintop that pokes above the surface in a range of underwater seamounts. In 2010, after an expedition by Oceana and National Geographic uncovered thriving communities of red corals, Galapagos sharks, butterfly fish and more, President Piñera declared the 58,000 square miles of water surrounding Sala y Gomez a marine park, closed to commercial fishing.
Now, the president has announced that Chile will seek to expand that park to include the range of seamounts that link Sala y Gómez to Easter Island. The president and the government of Chile will next consult with the people of Easter Island, the Rapa Nui, and ask them to endorse this plan.
We have been advocating for the protection of these special places for years and, thanks to your support, future generations will be able to partake of their beauty and diversity.
Oceana in Chile has been working for several years to keep bottom trawlers out of the most vulnerable marine ecosystems in the nation’s waters.
Back in 2009, we proposed a bill that would close all 118 seamounts in Chile to bottom trawlers, and this week our staff participated in a discussion of the bill by the Chilean Senate’s Fisheries Committee.
Bottom trawling, one of the most destructive forms of fishing, uses a huge, heavy net to scrape the seafloor. Trawlers are indiscriminate, which results in overfishing and the accidental entanglement of animals including sea turtles and marine mammals. And these heavy nets destroy everything in their paths, including coral reefs.
Chile’s seamounts are home to jewel-toned coral reefs and fish, mammals such as fur seals and sea lions, and many more beautiful and unusual creatures. Some of these seamounts are home to species that can be found no where else in the world. Every pass of a bottom trawler turns swaths of these seamounts into barren wastelands.
Oceana’s 2009 proposal would ban bottom trawling on all 118 seamounts until this fishing technique is scientifically proven not to damage the ecosystems in question. Estimates suggest that this ban would have affected only 0.09% of Chile’s seafood exports in 2009.
Alex Muñoz, Oceana’s Vice President for South America, said about the bill, “Protecting vulnerable marine ecosystems that are threatened by trawling not only is important from an ecological point of view but also enhances the productivity of the fisheries that depend on these habitats.”
South America has been making important strides to protect their vulnerable ecosystems. Last year, Chile created a 150,000 square kilometer no-take marine reserve around Sala y Gómez Island and Belize banned bottom trawling throughout its waters.
The earthquake and subsequent tsunami that hit Chile in February were devastating to the Juan Fernández Islands, where we have been working with local communities to protect their marine resources. Robinson Crusoe Island was particularly hard-hit.
Oceana has been working with local divers organized by two local groups: Fundación Archipielago Juan Fernandez and the Robinson Crusoe Island Artisanal Fishermen Union. In September, they began the task of cleaning the wreckage left by the tsunami. Since then the team of divers has recovered tons of wreckage, including the grave you see in this chilling photo.