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May 20, 2014

Ocean Oasis

The Juan Fernández Islands, an archipelago located 400 miles off Chile, has been compared to the Galápagos Islands for its beauty and incredible biodiversity. Though relatively unknown, this ecosystem is under threat from unsustainable fishing practices. Oceana has made several expeditions to the Juan Fernández Islands, and is working to establish a marine reserve there. This article, which ran in our most recent magazine issue, explores the history of the Juan Fernández Islands as well as Oceana’s work to protect this ecosystem.


“I, poor miserable Robinson Crusoe, being shipwrecked during a dreadful storm in the offing, came on shore this dismal, unfortunate island, which I called “The Island of Despair;” all the rest of the ship’s company being drowned, and myself almost dead.”
Thus begins the journal of the fictional Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked on an unnamed island in the southeastern Caribbean. Writing in 1719, Daniel Defoe did not yet know that his fictional character would later lend his name to the small Pacific island that was the refuge of a real-life castaway, and the inspiration for Defoe’s classic tale of survival.

In the early 1700s, Scottish sailor Alexander Selkirk spent four years and four months living on an uninhabited island in the Juan Fernández archipelago, nearly 400 miles from Chile’s rocky coast. Unlike the shipwrecked Crusoe, Selkirk demanded to be left on the island rather than continue sailing on the unseaworthy vessel the Cinque Ports. His captain obliged — something Selkirk initially regretted — and promptly left him behind. The Cinque Ports later foundered off the coast of Columbia, where the crewmembers either drowned or were imprisoned by the Spanish in Lima. Once called Más a Tierra, Selkirk’s island home was later re-named Robinson Crusoe island, after the character his story inspired, while the archipelago’s other large island was named after Selkirk himself.

More than 300 years later, the Juan Fernández islands are nearly as wild as the day when Selkirk was unceremoniously set ashore. Purple and russet-colored Firecrown hummingbirds buzz through the mountain forests, while sea lions feast on schools of reef fish. But despite their boundless biodiversity, these waters remain almost entirely unprotected. Joined by the island’s inhabitants, Oceana is undertaking an ambitious project to document this amazing ecosystem and protect it — before it’s too late.

“The Juan Fernández islands have a rare combination of high biodiversity and a great abundance of fish,” says Alex Muñoz, Oceana vice president for Chile. “The people from Robinson Crusoe island have done an excellent job living from the marine resources in a sustainable way,” he says, “and these factors make the islands truly a special place.”

Both on land and beneath the waves, the Juan Fernández islands have high rates of endemism — meaning that many of the species here cannot be found anywhere else on earth. Massive Juan Fernández lobsters swarm through the shallow areas, and brilliant orange roughies swim amid the corals. These slow-growing fish can live for more than 100 years, and are overfished in many parts of their range. On the seamount’s steep slopes, scientists report that as many as 45 percent of the species of macroalgae, mollusks, crustaceans, echinoderms, and reef fishes are endemic to the archipelago. And it’s rocky coasts are spotted with a growing population of Juan Fernández sea lions, an extinction during the 1700s.

Robinson Crusoe island is also home to a small community of about 700 people, more than half of whom make their living fishing lobster and other species off the coasts. Many of the other residents work in the tourism industry, outfitting adventurous visitors for scuba diving trips to see the island’s marine life.

Despite their remote location, the Juan Fernández Islands are threatened by unsustainable industrial fishing practices. Bottom trawls are barred from fishing on Chilean seamounts, but trawlers can still fish close enough to destroy neighboring habitat in their search for overfished commercial species, like orange roughy and alfonsino. Muñoz says that the local fishermen are already noticing declines in the fish stocks close to shore.

Oceana is working with the local community to create a marine reserve surrounding Juan Fernández, extending far beyond the island’s limited Exclusive Economic Zone to protect its marine resources from destructive fishing practices, like longlines.

To help draw the boundaries of the reserve, Oceana launched a scientific expedition off of Robinson Crusoe island to gather data about the local ecosystem. A team of scientists and photographers — the same group who explored the nearby Desventuradas Islands in 2013 — reunited for an extensive survey of the islands’ marine life. Using a remotely operated vehicle and teams of divers, they collected data and hundreds of photographs from more than 20 sites around the island.

“This baseline will help us better understand the biological significance of Juan Fernández,” says Muñoz. “We know it is an exceptional site for the beauty and abundance of fish, but first we need detailed data about these species and their conservation status.”

Their efforts build on previous expeditions Juan Fernández and the neighboring Desventuradas Islands. These archipelagos are connected to each other by ocean currents that transport nutrients and food particles between islands. Oceana will use the data gathered on this recent expedition to better understand what parts of the Juan Fernández islands are most important to maintaining healthy fisheries and marine biodiversity.

“Chile is very lucky to have a paradise like the Juan Fernández islands, but this also means we have a responsibility to make sure we don’t lose it as such,” says Muñoz. “We’ll keep working with the community and the government to make this place one of the most important systems of protected areas in the world.”