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Salas y Gómez: The Need for Protection

The Salas y Gómez expedition team awoke this morning to find a commercial fishing boat with lines in the water in sight of the Chilean Navy’s patrol ship–no more than a mile or two from the island and well within the marine park’s no-take zone. Chilean sailors boarded the boat and found illegally caught yellowfin tuna in its hold.
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The naval team reaches the fishing boat, which has reeled in its lines.
By Alex Muñoz Wilson, Executive Director, Oceana – Chile
We woke up this morning to a startling sight: Overnight, a small commercial fishing boat from Easter Island entered the protected waters of the marine park and dropped its lines within site of the Comandante Toro.
The fishing boat’s captain was either brazen (why make an illegal fishing foray in plain sight of a large naval patrol ship?) or unaware of the existence of the new park (which would also be surprising, given the substantial publicity in Chile–particularly on Easter Island–surrounding the park’s creation).
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A Chilean Navy team gathers on the Comandante Toro’s helicopter deck before leaving to investigate a boat that’s dropped fishing lines in the newly protected waters near Salas y Gómez.
The Navy captain dispatched a team in one of the Toro’s fast boats to interdict the fishing vessel, inspect it, and put a stop to the illegal fishing. According to the captain’s report, this was a small commercial fishing boat with tuna in the boat’s hold.
The fishing boat’s owner said he was aware of the existence of the marine park, and that he was still planning to fish in this area. The navy showed him maps which made it clear that he was harvesting marine life inside the park in a no-take zone where all commercial fishing is banned.
This was the first enforcement action inside the new marine park.
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The team boards one of the Comandante Toro’s fast rib boats and sets out for the illegal fishing vessel–the first intercepted in the new marine park.
We’re worried that heavily subsidized foreign fleets are coming here often to catch the prize fish in this area, specifically tuna. There are reports of large vessels from several different countries fishing for tuna here in recent years. Its too expensive for the Chilean industry to come from the mainland especially when they have all kinds of marine resources available closer to home along Chile’s long coastline.
The Rapa Nui support the environmental protection here at Salas y Gómez. They have seen the decline of their own fisheries as a result of the international industrial fleets operating in this area.
During hearings over the park’s creation, a Rapa Nui representative testified before the fishing committee of the Chilean senate. He said that he and others on Easter Island/Rapa Nui supported the idea of protecting the waters within 200 miles of Salas y Gómez, just leaving the crescent within 100 miles of Rapa Nui for the local fishermen. The Rapa Nui people practice small-scale fishing around Easter Island, leaving no conflict between the existence of the park and local fishing activity.. The park could actually help sustain healthy fish stocks which would benefit the Rapa Nui fishing industry.
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From the deck of the Toro, Comandante Andrés Rodrigo confers with his team aboard the fishing vessel. They had just found tuna in the ship’s hold.
The incident today involved a small boat, but it’s evidence of the need to have better enforcement in general. It’s my understanding that currently, the Chilean Navy makes the long voyage to Salas y Gómez two or three times a year. The scientific investigation being carried out here now by National Geographic and Oceana is taking place aboard a patrol vessel that’s assigned to another area. This ship’s presence at Easter Island and Salas y Gómez is a special event. Chile definitely needs to allocate more resources to the Chilean Navy so that it can be more present at Easter Island and Salas y Gómez.
We have been successful in creating this big marine park. Now the challenge will be enforcing the law. The enforcement action that took place this morning was a warning. This time, it was just a small boat that was found fishing in this area. In the future it may be bigger vessels that will deplete the tuna, lobster, shark and other valuable marine resources found here. We need to implement sound protection now if we don’t want Salas y Gómez to suffer more of the consequences of irresponsible fishing.
Photos by Ford Cochran and Alex Muñoz Wilson, courtesy Oceana
The science team will share frequent updates and media from the expedition, including photographs, videos and links to Google maps, here on the National Geographic News Watch blog. You can also follow the expedition on Google Earth by clicking on the blue ship icon located where the expedition begins near Easter Island, roughly 2,000 miles (3,300 km) northwest of Santiago, Chile. (Make sure the “Places” layer is turned on).
National Geographic and Oceana are members of Mission Blue
View all dispatches from the Salas y Gómez expedition here