On Monday, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced the country's intentions to create a 243,630-square-mile marine reserve in the Pacific waters around Easter Island. Calling it the third-largest marine reserve in the world, Bachelet said the plan will only move forward after getting approval from the island’s indigenous Rapa Nui people. Upon becoming a marine reserve, the vast region would be protected from commercial fishing and oil and gas exploration.
The announcement was part of the "Our Ocean" conference in Chile, during which the Obama Administration also declared two new marine sanctuaries in Lake Michigan and the tidal waters of Maryland—the first new National Marine Sanctuaries since 2000. This is the a second annual "Our Ocean" summit, a gathering during which countries are encouraged to pledge support for the marine environment.
Easter Island, an isolated Polynesian island that falls under Chilean territory, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Polynesians arrived on the island more than 1,500 years ago, and over the centuries they carved the enormous stone figures for which the island has become known.
Easter Island is also one of the most isolated inhabited places on the planet, and according to an article in the Conversation by Callum Roberts, an environmental professor at the University of York, this makes it the perfect location for a marine reserve. This is not just because it's been spared the worst "depredations" of overfishing.
Isolation also means that Easter Island, although not as rich in species as places further west in the Pacific, has a bevy of sea creatures found nowhere else in the world including colourful dwarf angelfish, hermit crabs, tiny starfish and a slipper lobster. It’s a tightly connected web – some of these endemic species feed mainly on other endemic species. If they disappear from here, they disappear everywhere, so safeguarding them is a priority.
The proposed park would protect waters that are home to 142 endemic species, 27 of which are threatened or endangered.
Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group and active environmentalist took to his blog to commend Chile's action. He said that a spate of new marine reserves—as well as the potential for some major new designations in the near future—gives him hope "that individually and together, governments are beginning to recognize the need for action" when it comes to protecting oceans.
"Marine reserves build resilience and regenerate life," he wrote. "Easter Island is a parable for modern times. Once a story of collapse, it is now a story of success and forward thinking. Let’s follow in their footsteps."
Pedro Edmunds Paoa, Easter Island’s mayor, endorsed the plan as a promising vision of the future, saying the marine park "will not only conserve the many species that call the waters of Easter Island home but also the traditions of our Polynesian ancestors and the Rapa Nui people."
As part of the Easter Island announcement, Bachelet also announced two more marine parks around San Ambrosio and San Félix islands, which are closer to the coast of Chile. Encompassing roughly 115,000 square miles, the islands are a two-day boat ride from Chile's coast. Many of the species are endemic to the island area, and can't be found anywhere else in the world.