Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges

Imagine a mountain range the length of the southern Andes –110 volcanic peaks, stretching nearly 3,000 km end to end. Imagine these mountains are filled with rare, spectacular wildlife, that nearly half the species they shelter live nowhere else on Earth, and that scientists are discovering new life forms with every expedition. 

Now stop imagining, because these mountains are real: they’re called the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges, and are deep in the waters of the South East Pacific.

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These two unique chains of submarine slopes and summits areseparated from South America by the rich, cold waters of the Humboldt Currentand the yawning abyss of the Atacama Trench. Numerous studies have concluded they’reamong the most ecologically significant areas in the high seas – those areas ofthe ocean that lie beyond the jurisdiction of any country. Far below the waves intricategardens of slow-growing corals and gorgonians adorn the rocky slopes in some ofthe clearest waters on the planet, and in the plankton-abundant upwellings overthe ridges sharks, turtles, whales and seabirds gather to forage. This uniqueregion is a vital habitat for commercial species too, from swordfish to jackmackerel, underpinning sustainable food security for millions – but only if welook after it.

Threats and the future

The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges are still largely ecologically intact, but biodiversity and ecosystem resilience are never the less under threat. Deep-water trawling has destroyed coral and seabed habitats down to depths of 2,000 m, and has taken a heavy toll in bycatch of animals and plant life alike. Floating plastic debris drives the risk of ingestion and entanglement for nearly 100 species. Meanwhile climate change is making the seas warmer, less oxygenated and more acidic, all of which pose an existential threat to marine biodiversity .

Ominously, there’s cobalt in the crusts of the Salas y Gómezand Nazca ridges, which the deep-sea mining lobby may one day step up effortsto exploit – but doing so would be an ecological disaster.  

We’ve got a time-sensitive window of opportunity. By permanently closing the area to fishing and mining and establishing a high seas MPA, we can save the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges for ourselves and for future generations. And with 80% of the mountains still unexplored, there’s surely so much more for them to discover…

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Back to the surface

Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges

Currently, no legal mechanism exists to establish comprehensive marine protected areas (MPAs) in the high seas. It is critical that the new United Nations High Seas Treaty, currently under negotiation, sets up a global process for the establishment and effective management of a network of representative and well-connected MPAs in the high seas, including highly and fully protected areas where no harmful industrial activities are allowed.

Imagine a mountain range the length of the southern Andes – 110 volcanic peaks, stretching nearly 3,000 km end to end. Imagine these mountains are filled with rare, spectacular wildlife, and imagine that nearly half the species that they shelter live nowhere else on Earth. And imagine that the majority of these underwater mountains have not been explored, and that scientists are discovering new life forms with every expedition.

Now stop imagining, because these mountains are real: The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges exist deep in the waters of the South East Pacific.

These two unique chains of submarine slopes and summits are separated from South America by the rich, cold waters of the Humboldt Current and the yawning abyss of the Atacama Trench. They provide critical habitats and migration corridors for at least 82 threatened or endangered species, along with many others of ecological and economic importance.

Thousands of years ago, Polynesian and other seafarers used this hidden landscape on their voyages of expansive human migration and discovery, with their cultural heritage uniquely preserved by the Rapa Nui on nearby Easter Island. Today, the chains of ridges remain culturally important and provide all of us with an essential service as a global carbon sink, playing a part in everybody’s future.

Numerous studies have concluded these life-filled seamounts are among the most unique and ecologically significant areas globally. Far below the waves, intricate gardens of slow-growing corals and gorgonians adorn the rocky slopes in some of the clearest waters on the planet, and in the plankton-abundant upwellings over the ridges sharks, turtles, whales and seabirds gather to forage. This unique region is a vital habitat for commercial species too, from swordfish to jack mackerel, underpinning sustainable food security for millions – but only as long as we look after it.

Threats and the future

The Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges are still largely ecologically intact, and not much fishing has yet taken place in the area. But biodiversity and ecosystem resilience are nevertheless under threat. Where it has occurred, deep-water trawling has already destroyed coral and seabed habitats, and bycatch has taken a heavy toll. Floating plastic debris - much of it comprised of lost fishing gear - is drawn to the area by the South Pacific Gyre, driving the risk of ingestion and entanglement for many species. Meanwhile climate change is making the seas warmer, less oxygenated and more acidic, all of which pose an existential threat to marine biodiversity.


The region contains cobalt and other mineral deposits in the seafloor which, unfortunately, may one day be targeted by deep sea mining - leading to wholesale ecosystem destruction. While no contracts have yet been issued for exploration, neither are any of the areas officially closed to mining.

So imagine not destroying this incredible mountain range and its matchless biodiversity – imagine actually playing a part in saving it. We’ve got a time-sensitive window of opportunity before the chance is lost forever. Chile and Peru have afforded some protection to the ridge features within their own waters– but the rest is a global responsibility: 73% of the seamounts are in international waters with no protection. With the majority of these underwater mountains still unexplored, there’s surely so much more to discover.

By permanently closing the area to fishing and mining and establishing a high seas MPA through a new UN High Seas Treaty, we can protect the Salas y Gómez and Nazca ridges for ourselves and for future generations. Because this unique and special place is a global common, we can only effectively protect this area through an international treaty.