Overfishing on Rapa Nui

A group of scientists, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, recently arrived on Easter Island following an exploration of the ecosystems of the Salas y Gómez Islands, where it was supposed that man had not yet intervened, and Easter Island.  The Chilean government put the Chilean Naval patrol boat, “Comandante Toro” and its crew at their disposition to work for two weeks in local waters on that project.  The National Geographic sent three crews — television professionals, coastal scientists and deep water scientists.  They brought with them specialized equipment such as a glass sphere for the cameras with a filming range of 800 meters (2,625 feet).  Preliminary results of the research show that the Salas y Gómez ecosystem has a wealth of marine life, but that, unfortunately, man has already begun to intrude.  In the depths, remains of fishing nets from large ships can be seen, as well as a fixed anchorage, which is probably that used by the local fishing vessel, “Kahike” which still fishes with hooks.

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No more than 5 years ago, nearly 160 types of fish, grouped in 65 families, were counted on Rapa Nui, living in the great variety of relief and depths where visibility reaches up to 60 meters (197 feet).  Colonies of sea turtles and colorful tropical fish shelter among the coral, seaweeds and sand banks along the populated coast around Hanga Roa.  A general lack of nutrients due to the distance from the large continents, climatic changes, the currents and contrary winds, along with the arrival of new tropical species and overfishing within the last five years have decimated the previous abundance of marine species.  “Today there is only a third of what we had in 2007” states the French diver, Michel Garcia, one of the promoters of a marine reserve on Easter Island.

 

It seems that overfishing has arrived to Rapa Nui and is beginning to affect the maritime zone around Salas y Gomez as well.  It has become even more urgent to create a marine reserve in front of Hanga Roa, as well as around Salas y Gómez, a project which would count with the support and auspices of the National Geographic Society, after making their exhaustive comparative study of both ecosystems in this area of the Pacific.

Boyas en buoys in Sala y Gómez

In greater Polynesia there are already several marine reserves.  New Zealand was the pioneer with a total today of 31 marine refuges which protect almost 10% of its coastal waters, and which have reverted the heavy overfishing that they were suffering since 1965.  These parks offer not just the possibility that nature will regenerate itself, but serve as recreational areas and for tourism.  Presently more than 100 thousand people come each year to observe the fish – schoolchildren in neoprene wetsuits, tour groups with snorkels, others floating in glass-bottomed boats to admire the tropical fish.  These marine reserves have also become information centers.  Following the prohibitions on fishing, the entire country could witness the rebirth of the ocean.

Many Rapa Nui fishermen have commented on seeing large fishing boats in the night in the environs of the Island.  It is enough to see the rubbish of their nets and buoys on the rocks along to coast to know that they are there.  It seems like there is no supervision or control of this maritime territory.  The recently appointed Harbor Master, Captain Eduardo Ortiz-Diaz, confirms that “this is a very serious topic, of the highest priority for the Navy in Isla de Pascua.  Today the entire Chilean Navy has two marine patrol boats with a range which allows control of the 200 nautical miles of exclusive economic zone.

Isla de Pascua doesn’t have one and, therefore, our control is not complete.  This is a governmental topic;  it is so important that we should finance 4 to 6 more ships with a minimum range to cover 450 nautical miles.  In the past, we didn’t even have patrol boats; they used the squadron for supervision, and always within their usual annual schedule.  We are supported today by the maritime aero-exploration of the P3 Orion planes.  These have more autonomy.   If they spot fishing ships, they can call for a special ship to sail out.  Those ships have satellite radar which detects vessels which cross into our maritime territory and they go faster than the fishing ships.”

 

It is hoped that Chile will join its Polynesian colleagues, New Zealand and Hawai’i.  In 2002, the United States created the “Papa Hanau Mokuakea”, the largest marine reserve in the world with 360,000 km2 (139,000 sq.mi.) that includes 10 islands and atolls.  The only way to stop the destruction of marine resources and fisheries is through the recovery of these ecosystems.  Some scientists feel that we should declare Tapu or taboo on commercial fishing in 40 to 50% of the seas.

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