Chile Leads Int’l Campaign to Protect Oceans

Chile Leads Int’l Campaign to Protect OceansChile Leads Int’l Campaign to Protect Oceans

The Chilean government on Monday announced that it has created the largest marine reserve in the Americas by protecting an area hundreds of miles off its coast roughly the size of Italy.

The new area, called the Nazca-Desventuradas Marine Park, constitutes about 8% of the ocean areas worldwide that have been declared off-limits to fishing and governed by no-take protections, says Russell Moffitt, a conservation analyst with the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington.

The Pac-Man-shaped marine protected area encompasses roughly 297,000 square kilometers of ocean around San Ambrosio and San Felix islands. Together, they’re known as the Desventuradas (or Unfortunate in Spanish) Islands, which are part of the underwater Nazca Ridge, which runs southwest from Peru to Easter Island.

“These islands had been subject to a modest amount of fishing, mainly for swordfish, before the creation of the new park,” says Alan Friedlander, chief scientist for National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project.

The project partnered with Oceana to promote designation of the new MPA.

The swordfish catch around the Desventuradas Islands amounted to about 0.5% of Chile’s total swordfish haul.

“Fishing will be allowed to continue in an unprotected wedge-shaped area that gives the new MPA its distinctive shape,” says Alex Munoz, vice president of Oceana in Chile.

In addition, a small lobster fishery, which has been certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council, an international organization, will continue in a small area outside of the reserve.

The main reason groups pushed for the new MPA was to protect an intact ecosystem, Friedlander explains.

That’s important, because studying pristine ecosystems gives scientists a good idea of how marine communities are supposed to function.

  Protecting a Wealth of Life

Desventuradas sits in a unique oceanic environment, harboring a mix of tropical and temperate species.

Due to its isolation from the mainland—it takes a two-day boat ride from Chile’s coast to get there—much of Desventuradas’ marine life is endemic, or found nowhere else in the world, says marine ecologist Enric Sala. Endemic species include Juan Fernandez fur seals, the Chilean sandpaper fish and Juan Fernandez Trevally.

About 72% of the species found around Desventuradas and an island chain known as the Juan Fernandez archipelago—about 750 kilometers to the south—is endemic, says Sala, an Explorer-in-Residence with National Geographic who heads the Pristine Seas project, which aims to protect the last wild places in the oceans.

Monday’s announcement triples the amount of Chile’s offshore waters that are under the strongest protections.

“For many years, Chile has been one of the most important fishing countries in the world,” says Munoz.

“Unfortunately, that led to depletion of our marine resources,” he says. “With the creation of this marine park around Desventuradas, we’re also becoming a leader in marine conservation.”

  One Step at a Time

Moffitt, who was not involved in the Desventuradas project, says it may be more urgent to protect near-shore waters that are heavily impacted by fishing or pollution than to close off these waters so far offshore.

“The prevailing trend has been to protect large MPAs and large reserves far from shore and far from large population centers, usually with low fishing interest,” he says.

“These isolated MPAs are low-hanging fruit in a way. We really need to be creating a more diverse portfolio of marine reserves,” he says.

Both Sala and Munoz agree that near-shore waters need protection, too. But isolated areas like the Desventuradas are threatened by long-distance fishing fleets and bottom-trawling.

Friedlander says protecting them before they become degraded is not only scientifically valuable, but also cost effective.

Munoz says the Chilean Navy has a small presence on San Felix Island and will be helping enforce the no-fishing rules.

“[The navy] will be ensuring the integrity of this park,” says Sala. “They are a very, very important player.”

Many countries still have a long way to go to meet the United Nations’ goal of protecting 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. But Moffitt says the Desventuradas park is a step in the right direction, and Munoz says he has already set his sights on protecting another area in the Juan Fernandez archipelago.