Stone heads loom in the imagination of most people when they think of Easter Island. Known as Rapa Nui to its inhabitants, who also go by the name Rapa Nui as a people, the island sits in a remote corner of the Pacific Ocean, 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) west of Chile. Like the mysterious stone Moai that line the landscape, there is more to this place than is visible from the surface.
Some 142 marine species found nowhere else on Earth (27 of which are at risk of extinction) and 77 percent of the Pacific’s fish abundance thrive in the waters around Rapa Nui. An expedition in early 2017 uncovered even more species, some new to science, in the depths surrounding the island, many of which were striking shades of red and orange.
In the depths of the ocean, as the sunlight fades, red wavelengths of light are absorbed first, rendering many of the new discoveries, such as the sunset-colored Anatolanthias fish and the ochre-hued sea biscuit (a burrowing, urchin-like creature) virtually invisible in the twilit water.
Nearer the surface, coral reef fish like Pseudolabrus semifasciatus, a wrasse species splashed in purple, yellow and monochrome tiger stripes, are a vivid reminder of the region’s unique biodiversity. Almost one-quarter of all fish swimming off the island reside permanently near the surface.
In a bid to preserve these species, a new marine reserve covering 740,000 square kilometers (about 286,000 square miles) of ocean, an area greater than the size of France, has been officially designated by the Chilean government. The Rapa Nui Marine Protected Area will be off-limits to commercial mining and fishing, while the local people will be free to continue the traditional fishing methods of their ancestors.
The announcement of the marine protected area (MPA) in 2017 was met with praise from environmental advocacy groups such as the Pew Charitable Trusts, which helped assess the economic consequences of a Rapa Nui reserve. Matt Rand, director of the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, hailed the decision as a democratic triumph: a referendum in September 2017 found 73 percent of locals in favor of the reserve following the highest instance of voter turnout in the island’s history. With local and international support rallying behind the project, hopes are high for a conservation success story.
“There is a Polynesian concept called ‘Rahui,’ which is to make an area off-limits from exploitation. Community leaders proposed this ancient concept and led the way in building strong support in the referendum that supported the creation of an MPA,” Rand told Mongabay. “It was a historic moment for this island, but it should be a signal to other island and coastal communities that they can conserve their ocean environments and their own cultural heritage with marine protected areas.”
Since the referendum, the Chilean government and the Rapa Nui people have worked together to finalize how the reserve will be overseen and its protections enforced once signed into law. Islanders have begun training as monitors, while Chile, which administers the island as a special territory, plans to assist with satellite observation of the MPA to ensure foreign vessels abide by its rules.
In recent years, the Rapa Nui have watched the distant lights of fishing boats on the horizon at night grow larger and more numerous. Meanwhile, the size and number of fish they catch with rock weights and lines has shrunk. Local landings of yellowfin tuna (Thunnus albacares), known as kahi ave ave in Rapa Nui, peaked around 2000 at 70 metric tons per year, but the following decade saw catches stagnate. In recent years, confidence in the ocean’s capacity to provide has diminished among the Rapa Nui — with encroaching foreign fleets and fishing regulations remote from the local culture getting the blame.
Rand believes the experience has fueled support on the island for autonomy over the region’s resources, creating common cause for a reserve with the outgoing administration of Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, who is keen to shore up her record on environmental protection.
“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 after news of the referendum result broke.
“This marine protected area adds to the legacy of President Bachelet and the 1.5 million square kilometers [579,000 square miles] of protected areas created by this government.”
Ludovic Burns Tuki, director of the Roundtable of the Sea, a coalition of more than 20 Rapa Nui groups, agrees that the participation of locals is crucial to the reserve’s long-term viability.
“I think the government of Chile made a big step in understanding the worldview of Rapa Nui and our connection with the ocean,” Tuki told Mongabay. “For any MPA, it is important to work together, and what happens in Easter Island is an example for the entire world.”
Like many islanders, however, Tuki is mindful of the missteps taken by Chile in relation to Easter Island in the past. In 2010, a no-take marine park was declared around the nearby island of Motu Motiro Hiva (known in Spanish as Salas y Gómez) without any consultation with the Rapa Nui themselves.
“Because in Chilean law, Rapa Nui and Motu Motiro Hiva are two different islands,” Tuki explained. “For us, there was always a connection between the two islands.”
Despite prior disagreement, the referendum result has encouraged many who foresee a more progressive and prosperous relationship with the mainland. Tuki is among them, highlighting the importance of cooperation and the potential for the Rapa Nui to sustainably manage their own waters.
“We must work with strategy and union to get success for our community. It is important to know that 62 percent of the Rapa Nui have a Chilean surname, that is why we must keep good relations with respect and heart,” he said. “Today Rapa Nui is in a very good moment because of tourism and help from Chile.”
For others, the influence of Chile is rooted in centuries of misrule, which sustains modern distrust of Santiago’s authority. As the Chilean presidential election thundered on in the distance, one local politician ran on a parliamentary ticket of self-determination for the Rapa Nui. Though her campaign fell short in December’s vote, the movement behind Annette Rapu Zamora suggests there are underlying problems that will not be swept away by the referendum.
Outside of the political environment, scientists have applauded the reserve and what it could achieve for the region’s ecology. Donald Olson, a coral ecologist at the University of Miami, studied the reefs of Rapa Nui in 2007 and found an oasis of unique and unusual species.
“[Rapa Nui] is the southeastern-most point for coral ecosystems in the Pacific, with no great connection to the West and elsewhere,” Olson told Mongabay.
Ocean currents have restricted the dispersal of creatures to the island’s waters, acting as a natural boundary that Charles Darwin termed “the Great Eastern Pacific Barrier.” The result for Rapa Nui is a marine haven of “distinct, separate [life] forms” which evolved in isolation and occur nowhere else.
He added: “The biggest thing the protected area will do is keep commercial fishing out and protect local interests, so that people can derive income from livelihoods that won’t harm the ocean.”