One of the world’s largest marine protection areas has been created off the coast of Easter Island.
The 740,000 sq km Rapa Nui marine park is roughly the size of the Chilean mainland and will protect at least 142 endemic marine species, including 27 threatened with extinction.
An astonishing 77% of the Pacific Ocean’s fish abundance occurs here and recent expeditions discovered several new species previously unknown to science.
Apex predators found in the conservation zone include scalloped hammerhead sharks, minke, humpback and blue whales, and four species of sea turtle.
Matt Rand, the director of the Pew Bertarelli ocean legacy project, which campaigned for the park, said: “This marine reserve will have a huge global significance for the conservation of oceans and of indigenous people’s ways of life.
“The Rapa Nui have long suffered from the loss of timber, declining ecosystems and declining populations. Now they are experiencing a resurgence based on ensuring the health of the oceans.”
Plans for the marine park were first announced at a conference in 2015, at which the former US president Barack Obama declared his “special love for the ocean” in a video message.
The plans were confirmed in a speech by Chilean president Michelle Bachelet on Saturday.
The marine park’s creation was enabled by a 73% vote in favour of the conservation zone from Easter Island’s 3,000 Rapa Nui population in a referendum on 3 September, after five years of consultations.
Extractive industries and industrial fishing will be banned inside the reserve, but the Rapa Nui will be allowed to continue their traditional artisanal fishing on small boats, using hand lines with rocks for weights.
An annoucement has been made for a vast marine park, plans for which are set to be unveiled in October 2015. Encompassing 278,000 sq miles of ocean, it would be the world’s biggest, if created before another one proposed by the UK around the Pitcairn Islands, the nearest land 1,300 miles west.
Map of the planned marine park
Under the plan put forward by the Rapa Nui, the 3,000 indigenous people of the island, the park would allow only islanders to fish 50 miles out to sea and through a corridor to Sala y Gómez, tiny inhabited islands to the east. For everyone else, fishing anywhere 200 miles from the two would be banned.
A special territory of Chile, Easter Island covers a land area of 163 square kilometers (63 square miles). Easter Island and Salas y Gomez island’s surrounding waters out to 200 nautical miles cover an expanse of approximately 700,000 square kilometers (270,271 square miles).
The province of Easter Island includes its namesake island and Salas y Gomez, lying 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the east, which holds spiritual importance for the Rapa Nui. Salas y Gomez is also the site of the Motu Motiro Hiva Marine Park, declared by the Chilean government in 2010. Together, Easter Island and Salas y Gomez are the only undersea mountains of the vast Salas y Gomez ocean ridge that emerge from the waves. The waters surrounding both islands out to 200 nautical miles cover an expanse of approximately 700,000 square kilometers (270,271 square miles).
World famous for its remarkable monolithic human figures, or moai, Easter Island is also recognized for its unique marine life. These waters support wide-ranging populations of fish species such as tuna and swordfish. Ancient Polynesians expertly navigated these waters guided by the stars and the ocean, giving it the name “the belly button of the world”. From one generation to the next, they passed along their impressive seafaring skills.
Though still largely unexplored, the waters of Easter Island are known to contain geological hot spots and areas of rare biodiversity. Highly migratory fish species, hydrothermal vents, and seamounts ranging from 8.4 million to 13.1 million years old are found here. Additionally, research expeditions to neighboring seamounts indicate that many fish communities are highly local, but that they bear a closer resemblance to Japanese and Hawaiian coastal fish communities than to those of South America’s Pacific coast.