Vaikava Rapa Nui
Easter Island’s Rapa Nui people uphold tradition as guardians of the ocean
This fact sheet was updated in August 2017 to reflect the Rapa Nui community’s ongoing efforts to protect its waters.
Easter Island, a territory of Chile that lies some 4,000 kilometers (2,485 miles) west of that country’s coast, is world-famous for its Moai statues, which are recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Now it is time to protect the treasures off the shores of this remote island, waters of unique biodiversity that both feed the local Rapa Nui people and help them continue centuries-old cultural traditions.
Though still largely unexplored, Easter Island’s waters are known to contain geological hot spots and oases teeming with life in an area of the Pacific Ocean that is otherwise extremely poor in nutrients. The seafloor off the island is home to the only hydrothermal vents in Chilean waters. The heat and minerals pluming from the vents help sustain unique wildlife such as the Easter Island butterfly fish, or tipi tipi in local dialect, and the Nazca bigeye—two of the more than 140 species found only in Rapa Nui waters. The area also harbors 27 threatened or endangered species, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is an important spawning ground for many species, including tuna, marlins, and swordfish.
Overfishing threatens the island’s biodiversity
Increasingly, commercial fishing fleets are pushing into every nook of the world’s oceans. Left unchecked, this activity could quickly—and irreversibly—damage Easter Island’s special marine environment.
To guard against such an occurrence, the Rapa Nui community is striving to create a large marine protected area (MPA) around the island that would be off-limits to industrial commercial fishing and other extractive activities. The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project is working closely with the islanders on this effort, which would establish the Rapa Nui people as global leaders in ocean conservation and in preservation of an indigenous culture strongly tied to the ocean.
Marine protected area would carry on a tradition of conservation
Te Mau o te Vaikava o Rapa Nui is a community-led effort to determine the best ways to protect the island’s waters. In 2015, the Rapa Nui proposed creation of an MPA that would protect their unique marine ecosystems—found nowhere else on Earth—and allow artisanal fishing in the coastal areas. By securing designation of the MPA and managing it effectively, Easter Islanders would protect waters that have played a central role in their long-standing cultural traditions, such as their custom of using fishing line and rocks to catch fish.
In addition, such action would help combat illegal fishing in the province’s waters: Satellite data gathered and analyzed under a project supported by Pew and the Bertarelli Foundation show that, despite the island’s isolation, illicit fishing is probably happening around Easter Island.
Seafaring history links the Rapa Nui people to the sea
Ancient Polynesians sailed the Pacific for thousands of years, using the stars and currents as their guides. Those seafaring skills and deep connection to the ocean in part shaped the modern-day Rapa Nui. Protecting Easter Island’s waters would allow the locals to sustain and strengthen their ties to their natural environment and to their ancestors.