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A Pacific Gem, Protected

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Last week was a fantastic week for the oceans. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced the creation of a 150,000 square kilometer no-take marine reserve around Sala y Gómez Island in the Pacific Ocean. This decision protects an area of biodiverse marine habitat larger than Montana, and most of it has never been explored.

Sala y Gómez is an uninhabited island off Chile's coast that Dr. Enric Sala, marine ecologist and National Geographic Ocean Fellow, called "one of the last undisturbed and relatively pristine places left in the ocean."

Dr. Sala was a member of a preliminary expedition earlier this year to the island by Oceana, National Geographic and the Waitt Foundation. The scientists found a variety of vulnerable marine species such as sharks and lobsters -- and they were noticeably more abundant than in nearby Easter Island, which is not protected from fishing. And the scientists found unexpectedly high biodiversity in deeper waters.

The expedition was by no means an exhaustive investigation of the underwater ecosystem -- which is why the groups are planning a follow-up expedition next year -- but it left no doubt that Sala y Gómez deserves to remain untouched. In August, Dr. Sala and Oceana Chile's Vice President, Alex Muñoz, appeared before the Chilean Congress to present scientific evidence to support the creation of a marine protected area and no-take zone around the island. Fortunately, President Piñera signed off on it.

Chile has a vast coastline, yet before this decision, only .03 percent of its marine resources were protected. In one day, that percentage leapt to 4.41 percent. Less than 2 percent of the global ocean is protected, although the Parties of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity -- including Chile -- agreed to protect 10 percent of their exclusive economic zones by 2012. Meanwhile, 10 percent of the world's land mass is already protected.

That math doesn't add up -- more than two-thirds of our planet is ocean, yet we have protected five times more land. It's time to give our oceans a break; we need more marine parks like Sala y Gómez.

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