Chilean President Michelle Bachelet announced on Tuesday the creation of three new marine sanctuaries encompassing more than 450,000 square miles, according to Smithsonian Magazine, an area nearly double the size of Texas.

The announcement comes at a time when the world’s oceans face rapid decline from a range of threats, and establishes Chile as a leader in the growing field of marine conservation, according to Pew Charitable Trusts.

The first reserve, Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area, spans 278,000 square miles and covers the economic zone of Easter Island, which is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its astounding biodiversity. Industrial fishing and extraction will no longer be permitted in the area, but traditional forms of fishing will be allowed, a concession to indigenous people who played a role in the reserve’s formation, Smithsonian reports.

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“The government of Chile believes that public participation leads to better policy with a deeper connection to those who are affected, and we were committed to consultation with the Rapa Nui,” Marcelo Mena, Chile’s minister of the environment, said in a statement.  

“That resulted in a vote to approve this marine protected area, limiting extractive techniques to those that are traditional to the Rapa Nui people,” he added

In fact, the reserve’s name comes from the Rapa Nui indigenous people.

The next reserve is fully protected, meaning all human exploitation will be prohibited in the area, and covers 101,000 square miles around Juan Fernández Islands.

The third reserve is also fully protected and covers 55,600 square miles of the kelp forests around the Diego Ramirez island.

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All three reserves contain an abundance of rare wildlife, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, and the waters around Diego Ramirez contain what is considered to be one of the last intact ecosystems in the world outside of Antarctica.

As one of the largest exporters of fish in the world, these new protections would seem to clamp down on a lucrative industry.

But they’re doing just the opposite, according to Smithsonian.

Over the past few decades, rampant overfishing has vastly diminished the annual catch potential of fish populations, a problem that is being felt all around the world.

By protecting fish in certain zones, populations may be able to recover to levels that can support a stable fishing industry, according to Smithsonian.

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“The Rapa Nui understand that a healthy marine environment is directly tied to their traditions and way of life,” Matt Rand, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, said in a statement. A thriving environment can help maintain a society’s culture and traditions.”

Globally, oceans are threatened by a range of problems — overfishing, ocean acidification, warming waters, plastic pollution, and industrial pollution, to name a few.

A growing movement, however, is trying to curb these threats.

Around the world, around 5% of ocean is under protection and the UN is aiming to double this number by 2020.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists, meanwhile, believes that 30% of the world’s oceans should be protected by 2030 if ocean ecosystems are to survive in the decades in ahead.

Global Citizen campaigns to protect marine habitats and encourage the creation of marine reserves. You can take action on this issue here.

Chile’s new reserves show that the country is ready to lead on this on this front.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see how Chile and other nations can inspire protection,” Emily Owen, an officer with Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, told Smithsonian. “We can kind of ride this wave, forgive the pun, towards that 30 percent.”


Defend the Planet

Chile Announces 3 Massive New Marine Sanctuaries

By Joe McCarthy