Chile Proposes Unprecedented High Seas Protections in the Pacific

Chile Proposes Unprecedented High Seas Protections Oceans

Chile has been making significant headway in ocean protections, establishing marine protected areas (MPAs) in 43% of its national waters. Now, the country is making waves with an ambitious new proposal to establish an MPA that would stretch over 2,900 kilometers wide in international waters, or the High Seas, of the southeastern Pacific. This first-of-its-kind MPA will require significant diplomatic efforts from Chile and nearby nations to be successfully pulled off. But if this MPA is instituted, the world will be one step closer to protecting 30% of our ocean by 2030. Chile's President Sebastian Piñera proposed this first at President Biden's Leaders Summit on Climate in April, saying that "it's not enough" to protect only national waters (known as Exclusive Economic Zones).

NOAA Sanctuaries: International Partnership on Marine Protected Areas, Biodiversity, and Climate Change, June 2, 2021.

Why This Matters

About 60% of our oceans lie outside of any one nation's control and are colloquially referred to as the "high seas." These waters contain vast ecosystems rich in biodiversity, but less than 1% has been officially protected. The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges, two undersea mountain ridges that span 2,900 kilometers, would be protected under the new proposal. These ridges are some of the most biodiverse regions in the High Seas. Unfortunately, they are also the prospects of many fishing and mining interests.

"It's an oasis in the middle of the Pacific. And there's still so much to discover. Every time we go there, we find so many new things," said Carlos Gaymer Garcia, a marine conservation expert from Chile.

Protecting the high seas is imperative to maintaining the ocean's health and biodiversity.

The Sirene Project: Image edited by Geraldine Palacios, taken from Google Maps.

Chile's On It

In 2018, formal negotiations began to establish a "High Seas treaty" that would develop a global framework for protecting and managing the high seas. The COVID-19 pandemic stalled talks in March 2020, and they are expected to resume next month. President Piñera, however, wasn't willing to wait.

"Chile has already established marine protected areas that cover over 43% of our Exclusive Economic Zone, but it's not enough, and that's why today I want to invite you to go further by asking you to join Chile in [these] two concrete proposals," he announced during the virtual Leaders Summit on Climate.

While Chile intends to take the bull shark by the horns, it's also prepared to work with any international body created by the developing High Seas treaty.

Waldemar Coutts, the director of Environment and Oceans at Chile's Foreign Ministry, stated:

While the South Pacific Regional Fisheries Management Organization will be engaged in the process, the new UN High Seas treaty, currently under negotiation, is meant to [include an] international body which will oversee the long-term management of the MPA.

Some ocean experts, have criticized Chile for not making an explicit effort to include neighboring nations in the proposal. Nevertheless, advocates around the world are praising the ambitious plan. "[Chile's proposal] is the kind of bold proposal that the oceans desperately need as they confront the pressure of climate change," said Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defence Council.

Researchers have identified many other marine areas that, if protected, could safeguard over 80% of endangered marine species' habitats and improve the health of fisheries across the world. While progress on the High Seas treaty remains slow-going, Speer is hopeful that the international community will rally around these new MPAs. "I feel confident that we have made progress and that the pause imposed by Covid has been useful to have informal conversations," she said. "With his announcement, Piñera is trying to keep the issue on the radar internationally."

Now This: Journalist, Ian Urbina, Spends 5 Years Documenting Crimes at Sea and Their Effect, October 7, 2019.