In the pre-dawn gloom in a small harbour on Easter Island, three fishermen fill their boats. Instead of piling nets, they load rocks which they will use to drop a line tens of metres below the swelling waves. The lines will be hauled up hand over hand with their catch, huge yellowfin tuna.
The technique would be recognisable to the fishermen’s ancestors who have worked these waters for hundreds of years. But this way of life on one of the world’s remotest inhabited islands is under threat, say local people and conservationists, from illegal fishing by industrial vessels that dwarf these tiny boats.
For many of the 7,000 people who live here and for the government of Chile, which administers the island from the mainland 2,300 miles east, the solution is a vast marine park, plans for which are set to be unveiled early next month.
Encompassing 278,000 sq miles of ocean, it would be the world’s biggest, if created before another one proposed by the UK around the Pitcairn Islands, the nearest land 1,300 miles west.
“We are pushing hard because we want it to happen,” said Sara Roe, president of the fisherman’s association at the harbour. “People doing illegal fishing are taking our resources, our money.” Between 2004 and 2013, she said, there was a dramatic decline in the tuna, swordfish and barracuda her fishermen caught, forcing some into farming and construction jobs.
Under the plan put forward by the Rapa Nui, the 3,000 indigenous people of the island, the park would allow only islanders to fish 50 miles out to sea and through a corridor to Sala y Gómez, tiny inhabited islands to the east. For everyone else, fishing anywhere 200 miles from the two would be banned, with the threat of action by the Chilean navy as a deterrent.
That enforcement is crucial, because there is little that islanders could do themselves to stop the illegal fishing, according to Petero Avaka, the president of Hanga Roa Tai, another fisherman’s association.
“They are stealing our tuna. If I had a bigger vessel to catch them I would go. Most people think the same. Unfortunately there is no way to control it,” he said, standing next to a pile of buoys and nets – something the Rapa Nui never use – which he believes is evidence of the illegal fleets.
This rubbish collected from waters around Easter Island is not the only evidence of industrial fishing. The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Bertarelli Foundation, which both support the new marine park, commissioned the US NGO SkyTruth to assess the scale of any illegal fishing. The year-long study combined satellite images and vessel collision avoidance data and found 25 boats that could be illegal fishing vessels. “But imagery alone can’t tell you if they have gear in the water. You need to deploy some assets off Rapa Nui [Easter Island],” said John Amos, SkyTruth’s founder.
The Chilean navy is the only body with the steel in the water and in the air for that, although it faces huge challenges because of the area involved: it takes vessels six days to get from the mainland to the island. This year it has conducted 10 operations to control illegal fishing, and helped blacklist the world’s largest floating fish factory, the 299-metre Lafayette.
Heraldo Muñoz, Chile’s foreign minister, observed the Russian-flagged boat firsthand from a navy observation plane. He is an enthusiastic backer of the marine park, which he sees as a chance to build bridges with the island and to show international leadership on ocean conservation.
He does not want to push anything on the islanders that they don’t want. Santiago will have to consult the Rapa Nui because of Chile’s obligations under a UN convention on indigenous people, meaning an announcement of intent on the park’s creation rather than a presidential decree is most likely at an oceans conference next month.
Despite the assurances, mistrust of the mainland runs high on Easter Island, over not just the marine park but almost everything.
Local people lay much of the blame for the wariness on Chile’s handling of the national park. Created in the 1950s by Chile without involving the Rapa Nui, and run by the government, the land park drew around 80,000 people to Easter Island last year. In May an unofficial “parliament” of islanders briefly closed it, demanding that more money from the £39 entry charge stays on the island.
Mario Tuki, one of the parliament, spent a day in prison for his part in the protest. “I wish I could have spent more,” he said. However, he backs the marine park plan, believing that what happened on land doesn’t have to happen at sea.
Near a banner reading ‘no more marine park’, Petero Hito, one of the island’s 150 fishermen, draws a map of the park’s proposed boundaries. He jabs at the 50-mile inner circle that would be reserved for Rapa Nui fishing. He believes that, contrary to the plan, this gradually will be closed too.
“I want to be able to fish everywhere,” he said, pointing to the “no-take” areas.
Opposition to the plan appears relatively rare on the island, but one group of five people known as Tapu are against it, having dropped out of a working group on the park’s creation. Even a few of the park’s biggest supporters worry that Chile, whose biggest industry is mining, will not go ahead with the park because it would prevent any potential future deep-sea mining for metals.
But the mayor’s office and 20 of the island’s official associations for tourism and fishing all back the marine park. The mayor, Pedro Edmunds, sees it as an opportunity to turn around bad feeling over the national park.
Edmunds knows that Easter Island is often held up as a cautionary tale of environmental destruction, a parable of what the whole world could face if it exhausts its resources. When Europeans first arrived in 1722, they found no tree or bush taller than 10ft, writes Jared Diamond in his book Collapse. But pollen samples and radiocarbon dating suggest the island was covered by a subtropical forest before humans arrived. The Rapa Nui used trees for boats, fuel and food – some palms yield honey – and transporting the Moai statues that dot the island.
“I have often asked myself: what did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing? Like modern loggers, did he shout ‘jobs, not trees!’”, writes Diamond, who calls it one of the world’s most extreme examples of deforestation.
For some Rapa Nui, the marine park represents more than the chance to protect their livelihood and future food. It is also an opportunity to wipe the slate clean and be an environmental champion rather than a pariah.
Mike Rapu, a former national free diving champion who runs a diving centre in Hanga Roa, said: “Now more than ever, we are aware that as a community we can use natural resources to extinction, which we did with the land and the forest. Based on that experience, we have to tell the world we have learned that lesson.”
Article from: The Guardian
Photo by: Kashfi Halford/Bertarelli Foundation