Santiago (AFP) - Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has unveiled protections for a huge oceanic area home to incredibly diverse marine life, in a move to boost her legacy two weeks before leaving power.
Bachelet signed Tuesday a law creating the Rapa Nui marine park around Easter Island and the southern town of Tortel, another around the Juan Fernandez Islands and a third around Chile's southernmost point, the Diego Ramirez Islands.
In all, protections added during her four-year term cover some 1.3 million square kilometers (509,000 square miles) of ocean.
The Rapa Nui area alone accounts for some 720,000 square kilometers home to at least 142 species of marine life found nowhere else, of which 27 are threatened or in danger of extinction.
Industrial fishing will now be banned in these zones. Large fisheries from China had been especially active in the area around Easter Island and around the Juan Fernandez Islands. Most of the fishing was for lobster exported to China.
"It is super exciting what we are experiencing today. We are crowning a beautiful process by transforming the vision, will and action needed into bills," Bachelet said during one of her last ceremonies at the La Moneda palace before handing over power on March 11 to conservative Sebastian Pinera.
Bachelet's decree multiplies by 10 the amount of marine areas protected, growing by 4.3 percent to 42.4 percent of Chile's sea surface during the socialist president's four=year term.
- Conservation milestone -
Her huge conservationist legacy now includes 14 new marine protected areas (eight marine parks and six coastal marine areas).
Last month, an order by Bachelet greatly expanded protected parkland in the country's stunning southern Patagonia region by incorporating reserves owned by late American philanthropist Douglas Tompkins, who founded the North Face label.
In all, 4.5 million hectares (11 million acres) are being added to Chile's protected zones, with the ancillary aim of them also boosting tourism to the unspoilt reaches of South America.
"The marine parks created are going to be laboratories" for the world, Oceana Chile director Liesbeth van der Meer told AFP.
Ricardo Bosshard, director of WWF Chile, called it a "milestone in the history of nature conservation."
Marine protected areas "contribute to the development of territories and communities, since by conserving the health of marine ecosystems and their species they also provide basic ecosystem services for people and the economy," Bosshard explained.
Along with the creation of Juan Fernandez National Park, Bachelet decreed the expansion of its protected coastal marine area, where 130 important conservation species have been detected, of which 32 are threatened.
Low-impact economic activities, such as artisanal fishing and sustainable tourism, will still be allowed.
"The Juan Fernandez and Desventuradas islands form an area where they find the highest levels of endemism for marine systems of the entire planet. There are coastal fish species that are only found on these islands and nowhere else on the planet," said Carlos Gaymer, director of Ecology and Sustainable Management of Oceanic Islands, or ESMOI.
Bertarelli Foundation co-president Dona Bertarelli called for other countries to pitch in more.
"Chile plays a driving role in conservation of the world's ocean's, but countries around the world have a lot to do if they want to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030," Bertarelli said.