Marine Park on “Salas y Gómez”

The international conservation organization, Oceana, and the National Geographic Society scheduled an expedition to the Salas y Gómez Island in March of 2010.   The scientific team, with their guide, Michel García, a diver from Easter Island, were able to record the underwater life that exists at depths of more than 100 meters (330 feet) with a submarine robot.  At that time, the scientists were able to verify the presence of a wealth of life and that some species – such as sharks, lobsters, fish and algae – are notoriously more abundant than on Easter Island, only 415 km. (260 miles) away.

 

Both organizations, together with the Fisheries Commission of the Chilean Senate, made recommendations to President Sebastián Piñera for the creation of a marine park of 150,000 km2 (57,900 sq. miles) surrounding the Salas y Gómez Island, one of the most pristine areas still remaining in the ocean.  With this park, 19.5% of the Easter Island marine ecosystem, of which Salas y Gómez is part, would be protected.  In marine parks, the only activities which are permitted are observation and extraction for authorized scientific and research purposes in order to safeguard the diversity of species and their habitat.  This opens possiblitites for tourism from Easter Island for diving and marine observation.

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The Salas y Gómez Island was discovered in 1793 by the Spanish sailor, José Salas, and annexed by Chile in 1808.  It consists of two unihabited rocks with a land area of only 15 hectares (37 acres).  Nesting on the island are 21 of the 150 species of marine birds found in Chile, including the Easter Island petrel, the white-throated swallow and the red-tailed tropicbird.  Within its economic exclusion zone – the 200 nautical miles surrrounding the island – there are nearly 30 submarine seamounts where 170 species of fish have been identified.  Among those we find the Nanue (gray chubb – kyphosus bigibbus), the Po`opo`o (trevally jackfish – pseudocaranx dentex), the Ruhi (black jackfish – caranx lugubris), the Mahito (surgeonfish – acanthurus leucopareius) and crustaceans siuch as Ura (lobster), the Rape Rape (Easter Island mitten lobster – parribacus perlatus), the Heke (octopus rapanuiensis) and many others.  The massive presence of sharks is an indication that the area is rich in endemic animal life which also leads us to believe that there may well be a number of new species yet to be found.
The island is already a nature sanctuary since 1976.  Nonetheless, Chile has decided that it is better to declare the ecosystem a Marine Park or Reserve.  According to Michel García, this would be of great benefit for Easter Island.  “Salas y Gómez is a nursery for the same Rapa Nui ecosystem and this would be, additionally, a legal international weapon to control the foreign factory ships which we know are fishing without any controls around Salas y Gómez Island.  The over-exploitation of the marine resources on Easter Island is serious.  The closed seasons imposed by the National Fisheries Service are not respected.  The Rapanui feel that they are the lords of their island and don’t accept regulations.  The closed season on lobster between November and April isn’t respected by fishermen nor by the owners of hotels and restaurants.  We shouldn’t forget that Rapa Nui doesn’t have any other reserve for flora or fauna than Salas y Gomez.  According to some scientific studies (Atalante 2004), Rapa Nui is in an area with the lowest density of plankton of the entire Pacific Basin and, therefore, very poor in variety of species and marine life.  As an example, there are only 65 families of fish registered for Easter Island compared with over 300 families that are found in Polynesia in general.  Nonetheless, in spite of the limited variety in species, some are very abundant on the ocean floor.

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Due to natural catastrophes, such as the 1983-84 El Nino current, the Miritonu (Lobophora variegata) alga was completely eliminated and, with it, the Uhuhanga (parrot fish) and several other species.  Between 1940 and 1960, fishing was sometimes done with dynamite in several parts of the Island (source, Jorge Edmunds-Rapahango), which meant the extinction of all the species that were near to the explosion.  The recovery of the ecosystem has been very slow and incomplete.

The increase in population and in tourism has increased fishing on all levels.  The narrow coastal strip is not able to fulfill the requirements of development and the equilibrium has been broken.  The dramatic decrease in species mentioned has been 100 to 1 in the last 25 years.  Man is the principal cause of this situation.  The future generations will demand their inheritance back.  The Rapanui people themselves must stop the indiscriminate harvest of the marine flora and fauna and establish some Tapu, or prohibitions, in the breeding periods of the species.

In mid-2011 a new expedition hopes to go again in order to get the biological information that is needed to design a general conservation plan.  Alex Muñoz, executive director of Oceana, noted that : “Our committment is to continue the work of increasing the areas that are under protection.  Presently only 2% of the world’s oceans are protected and in 2012 this should increase to 10% of the economic exclusion zones established by the nations.”

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