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Chile Creates Large Marine Reserve at Sala y Gómez Island

Today, the Chilean government announced the creation of a large marine reserve around tiny and remote Sala y Gómez island in the Pacific ocean. The Waitt Foundation, Oceana, and National Geographic mounted a March 2010 expedition to document marine diversity in waters surrounding the island. The government’s move represents a more than 100-fold increase in the expanse of Chile’s marine protected areas.

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According to a press release distributed this afternoon by Oceana‘s offices in Santiago, Chile, Oceana and National Geographic welcome the announcement by Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera this morning that creates the Sala y Gómez Marine Park, a no-take marine reserve of 150,000 square kilometers (about 58,000 square miles) surrounding tiny Sala y Gómez island in the Pacific Ocean. The new park expands Chile’s total marine protected area more than 100 times, from the previous 0.03 percent to 4.41 percent of the country’s territorial waters.

“This marine park is a huge step forward in Chile’s thinking about the ocean’s value for the country,” said Alex Muñoz, executive director of Oceana in Chile and South America. “We’re delighted to see that our government has started to focus on the need for sustainable use of our ocean resources. Chile has many other important ecosystems in this and other areas. Our commitment is to keep contributing with new data to increase the number of areas under protection.”

Last March, a preliminary scientific expedition to the island found abundant populations of vulnerable species such as sharks and lobsters, much larger than at the depleted ecosystem in neighboring Easter Island, which is not protected from fishing. In addition, the expedition revealed unexpectedly high biodiversity in deeper waters. The expedition was a collaboration between the Waitt Foundation, National Geographic, and Oceana.

Following the expedition, Oceana, supported by National Geographic marine scientists, presented a proposal to President Piñera advising protection of the entire exclusive economic zone, a total of 411,717 square kilometers around the island. The Fisheries Committee of Chile’s Senate also recommended unanimously the creation of a marine park of that size.

“Sala y Gómez is one of the last undisturbed and relatively pristine places left in the ocean,” said Dr. Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and National Geographic Ocean Fellow. “The island and its surrounding ocean ecosystem, which includes deep seamounts with unique marine life, have global value. These seamounts are very vulnerable to fishing activities, and this inspirational step marks Chile’s potential as a global leader in ocean conservation.”

Currently less than two percent of the global ocean is protected, although the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity–including Chile–agreed to protect ten percent of their exclusive economic zones by 2012.

“The current Sala y Gómez Marine Park is a significant step in marine conservation but it does not include all of the seamounts in its waters. This has been identified as a conservation gap that needs to be filled,” said Dr. Carlos Gaymer, a professor of marine biology at Universidad Católica del Norte and Southeast Pacific coordinator for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s World Commission on Protected Areas. Gaymer participated in the March 2010 expedition to the island.

Oceana hopes that Chile will expand the Sala y Gómez Marine Park boundary to 200 miles from the island, thus covering all seamounts in the exclusive economic zone around the island. Oceana and National Geographic plan to conduct a scientific expedition to Sala y Gómez in 2011 to develop an exhaustive baseline of the ocean ecosystem and to survey seamounts that are not included in the current park.

Read more on Oceana’s Beacon blog.

Photo of Sala y Gomez island courtesy and copyright Oceana