Chile has recently announced the signing of a new law protecting marine waters by creating 450,000 square miles of marine protected area. The law signed by Chile’s President Michelle Bachellet is split into three areas and will cover the same size as Texas, California, and West Virginia combine.
The newly protected areas are vital in marine conservation as they are known for spawning grounds, migratory paths for humpback whales, and nesting grounds for seabirds. With these new parks, more than 40 percent of Chilean waters have some level of legal protection.
“The Chilean government has really positioned itself as a global leader in ocean protection and conservation,” says Emily Owen, an officer with Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, which has worked for over six years to help make these protected waters a reality.
The largest of the three regions is the Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area (MPA). Here, industrial fishing and mining will not be allowed but traditional fishing will be permissible. At 278,000 square miles, this area encompasses the entirety of the economic zone of Easter Island, safeguarding more than 140 native species and 27 that are threatened or endangered.
The Easter Islands are known for the booming marine life and spawning grounds for species like tuna, marlin, and swordfish. These new MPA’s will help these species grow in number which will directly impact the people of Chile as seafood consumption is a staple in a large portion of the population.
Seafood consumption and export is vital to the economy of Chile. The country exported $5.7 billion worth of seafood to countries around the world in 2016. Chilean waters have suffered in recent years due to over-fishing and illegal operations.
Over the years, Chile has seen a sharp decline in the total amount of fish caught. At their peak in the 1990’s, fishermen were averaging 4.5 million tons of fish caught. By 2012, they caught less than 300,000 tons. The sharp decline was mostly due to over fishing and studies performed on the area determined that Chile’s fish population had become catastrophic due to over-fishing.
The newly protected marine areas were pushed by conservation groups and the Chilean government as a way to reverse the downward trend. The areas will protect marine life while breeding, promote population growth, as well as help restore surrounding areas through the spillover of ocean life outside the park.
As with all marine protected areas, the resulting boundaries are a compromise between opposing interests. Conservation groups pushed for a much larger area of protection in southern Chile while pressure from the Chilean sea bass industry led to a reduction of the planned park bounds and elimination of proposed protections further north around Cape Horn.
Although the reach of the MPA’s could have been larger, it was an important step in working towards larger-scale conservation of our oceans. The Chilean MPA’s follow the newly announced MPA’s in Seychelles and represent a continuing movement to realizing the importance of conservation and protection. The International Union for Conservation of Nature suggests that at least 30 percent of the world’s oceans must be protected to properly conserve marine life, population growth, pressure from the fishing industry, and climate change which is already changing whole ecosystems under the surface.
The new MPA’s are a very important step in promoting healthy oceans and fisheries but we are still a long way from where we need to be.