04/22/2011 02:20 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2011

Saving Easter Island's Marine Ecosystems


The haunting faces of the moai statues on Easter Island, off the coast of Chile, look out at us from the past, and beckon travelers from around the world. They also stand as symbols of the dangers of environmental degradation.

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond argues that the population and culture that produced them collapsed, due to resource overexploitation.

Oceana, the international ocean conservation group, and our allies in the area are trying to stop history from repeating itself, today, this time in the waters around the island.

Oceana recently completed a scientific expedition to Easter Island (also known as Rapa Nui) and neighboring Salas y Gómez Island, in collaboration with the National Geographic Society and the Chilean Navy.

The area surrounding the pristine Salas and Gómez Island, is one of incredible biodiversity. Oceana helped establish it as a 150,000 square kilometer no-take marine reserve.

Salas y Gómez
is a time warp. The scientists say it looks the way Easter Island must have looked .... before intensive fishing began there. The Rapa Nui community understands this, too, and they want to change it.

Oceana met with Rapa Nui community representatives to discuss their ambition to create a marine protected area off the island's only town, Hanga Roa. Hanga Roa Bay is rich with coral and a wealth of marine species, including sea turtles that frequent its shores to graze on algae-covered rocks. But intense fishing has removed the large fish and lobsters that the island's elders remember from their youth.

The Rapa Nui community presented a proposal to the Chilean government a few years ago, but it was turned down. Now Oceana will help navigate the political process and apply our experience from past success, in proposing marine protected areas in Chile.

In Collapse, Jared Diamond writes, "Easter Island is Earth writ small. Today, again, a rising population confronts shrinking resources."

Working with the Rapa Nui community, we can turn Easter Island into an example of far-sighted conservation and an alternative future. The mysterious moai statues can overlook abundance once again.