Tropical coral reefs and lush rainforests have long captured the public imagination and the lion's share of conservation efforts. But this week, the country of Chile took an historic step to recognize the importance of a less celebrated but no less spectacular ecosystem: seamounts.
Seamounts are underwater mountain ranges, where nutrient-rich water from the deep upwells, fueling an endless variety of life. Expeditions by Oceana and National Geographic to a range of volcanic seamounts northeast of Chile's Easter Island uncovered flourishing communities of red corals, Galapagos sharks, butterfly fish and more. But very few of Chile's seamounts have been explored, and the profusion of colorful marine life they support was threatened with destruction before they could even be documented.
On Wednesday, Chile became the first country in the world to protect all of its seamounts from bottom trawling, a destructive practice that can reduce centuries-old coral gardens to rubble in moments. The wonders of some of Chile's seamounts -- like those around the remote Juan Fernandez Islands -- have already been destroyed by the country's fishing fleet but, as of Wednesday, all 118 of the country's seamounts will be closed to trawling as a precaution while scientists assess these and other vulnerable underwater ecosystems off the Chilean coast.
But protecting seamounts and other vulnerable ecosystems was just one of the landmark reforms to the Chilean Fishing Law passed this week -- reforms that promise to completely overhaul the fisheries of one of the world's top fishing nations and serve as a model to other seafaring nations.
For decades in Chile the status quo has been for the fishing industry to decide how much fish it would take from the sea, regardless of environmental concerns, like a maritime fox guarding an underwater henhouse.
Along with protections to critical habitat, the new law requires that that the fishing industry's catch limits are in line with scientific recommendations. According to a report presented to Chilean lawmakers by Oceana, in the past decade catch limits for three of Chile's major fisheries -- anchovy, jack mackerel and hake -- have far exceeded scientific recommendations (by 78 percent, 87 percent and 193 percent, respectively). Now those recommendations will be mandatory. As will a new requirement that fishing fleets reduce the amount of unwanted species they catch and discard, a phenomenon known as bycatch. These unwanted species can include anything from unwanted fish to entangled seabirds and sea turtles.
In the course of a year Chile has gone from a country in which the fishing industry makes its own rules, plowing unseen wonders to oblivion and driving species to the brink, to one in which the interests of the ecosystem come first. Ironically, when this approach is embraced it usually works to the advantage of fishing fleets, ending the boom and bust cycle of overfishing and actually increasing the yields of their fisheries. A report in Science published earlier this year found that by setting sensible science-based quotas and protecting habitat, the world's fisheries could produce up to 40 percent more fish.
Chile has taken a dramatic step. It takes political courage to protect environments that few people will see firsthand but would, nonetheless, immeasurably impoverish the planet if they were allowed to be destroyed. By saving seamounts and the giant shoals of fish that ply the coast of this narrow, seaward-facing country, Chileans have taken a stand for the ocean and for future generations.