Chile Proposes Unprecedented High Seas Protections in the Pacific

Graphic: China Ocean Dialogue via Maritime Executive

By Amy Lupica, ODP Staff Writer

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, in the southeastern Pacific. This first of its kind MPA would be the first of its kind and will require significant diplomatic efforts from Chile and nearby nations to pull off successfully. But if they do, the world will be one step closer to protecting 30% of our ocean by 2030.  Chile’s President proposed this first at the White House Climate Summit saying that “it’s not enough” to protect only national waters (known as Exclusive Economic Zones).

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 only one percent has been officially protected. The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges, two undersea mountain ridges that span 2,900 kilometers and would be protected under the new proposal, 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.

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. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, however, wasn’t willing to wait. “Chile has already established marine protected areas that cover over 43% of our EEZ, 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 President Biden’s Virtual Earth Day Summit in April.

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. “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,” said the director of Environment and Oceans at Chile’s Foreign Ministry, Waldemar Coutts. Some, however, have criticized Chile for not explicitly including neighboring nations in the proposal.

Nevertheless, advocates around the world are praising the ambitious plan. Lisa Speer, director of the International Oceans Program at the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), said that the proposal showed outstanding climate leadership from the South American nation, “it’s the kind of bold proposal that the oceans desperately need as they confront the pressure of climate change.” 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.”


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