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Saving Easter Island's Sharks and Marine Life

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You've heard of Easter Island, but you may not be familiar with its uninhabited neighbor. Salas y Gómez Island has been called one of the world's last untouched marine places.

A recent expedition and new documentary demonstrate the stark contrast between these two islands -- and the need for new conservation measures in Easter Island to protect its sharks and marine life.

Last year, Oceana and the National Geographic Society, in an unprecedented collaboration with the Chilean Navy, launched a scientific expedition to the waters that surround Salas y Gómez Island and Easter Island, over 2,000 miles west of the Chilean coast.

The expedition was the team's second; the initial journey brought back such powerful scientific and photographic evidence of its ecological value that the Chilean government created a marine reserve around Salas y Gómez.

The team found a glaring difference between Easter Island and Salas y Gómez. Although the two islands have identical environmental conditions, years of overfishing around Easter Island has taken a toll -- the team found that Salas y Gómez has approximately three times as many fish as its neighbor, and many more sharks. Sharks in particular are a key sign of a healthy marine ecosystem as they indicate that there are enough fish to support the apex predators.

Diving in Salas y Gómez was like going back in time in Easter Island -- before the damage was done. The team found an incredible amount of marine life in the marine park, including scores of Galapagos sharks, large amberjacks, huge lobsters, and colorful corals that covered the sea floor. We have been working around the world to protect and restore shark populations, and the discovery of abundant sharks around Salas y Gómez was a hopeful sign.

While the divers discovered healthy corals near Easter Island, they found very few fish; Enric Sala, Explorer in Residence of National Geographic and co-leader of the expedition, compared it to "a perfect house that no one lives in."

As Easter Island's overfishing problem became clearer, so did the solution: expand the marine park to give the ecosystem a rest and allow the fish and sharks to come back. Broadening the current borders of the Salas y Gómez Marine Park would also ensure the protection of the seamounts between the two islands, which are extremely important habitats for a variety of marine life.

Oceana and National Geographic have formally proposed the expansion of the marine reserve around Salas y Gómez Island, both to Chilean President Sebastian Piñera, and to the indigenous Rapa Nui community on Easter Island. We're hopeful that our expedition will pave the way for a brighter future for the Rapa Nui people and their waters.

Be sure to catch the expedition documentary "The Lost Sharks of Easter Island" on Nat Geo WILD on Thursday, January 19 at 8 pm.

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