Although it wasn’t announced in George Osbourne’s speech (Chancellor of the Exchequer for the UK Government), the published edition of the UK’s budget confirms the green-light for the creation of a marine protected area (MPA) around the Pitcairn Islands – the largest marine reserve in the world.
The proposed 834,334-square-kilometres MPA, roughly three and a half times the size of the UK, will eclipse the current largest marine reserve of 640,000-square-kilometres that surrounds the Chagos archipelago, a reserve also set-up by the UK Government five years ago.
The Pitcairn Islands are the UK’s only remaining Pacific territory and consist of four volcanic islands. Three of the islands are uninhabited, but the second largest, Pitcairn, holds approximately 60 inhabitants, most of whom are descendants of the infamous HMS Bounty mutineers.
The remote Pitcairn Islands are home to one of the best-preserved deep-sea ecosystems in the world. It has a complex community of hard and soft corals including one of the two remaining raised coral atolls on the planet. It also has a 40-mile reef, the deepest and most well-developed coral reef known in the world.
There are at least 1,249 species of whales, dolphins, sharks, corals, turtles, seabirds and fish recorded around the Pitcairn Islands. Forty-eight of these species are critically endangered whilst two species of fish, such as the Genicanthus spinus, cannot be found anywhere else on Earth.
In March 2012, a scientific study of the waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands was led by ecologist Dr Enric Sala, leader of the Pristine Seas project created by the National Geographic.
During the expedition, Sala and his team submerged deep-water cameras in Pitcairn waters revealing an encrusting coralline algae, believed to be the deepest known living plant on the planet, intact seamounts (submerged mountains) and several new species of fish. According to Sala, he believes there is the possibility for many more deep-sea species yet to be discovered in the region.
The waters surrounding Pitcairn are also identified as one of the world’s Hope Spots by Dr Sylvia Earle, an American marine biologist who won Time Magazine’s first ever ‘Hero for the Planet’ award. A Hope Spot is a body of water considered to be critical to the health of the ocean or ‘the Earth’s blue heart’ as coined by Mission Blue, a global initiative set-up by Earle which aims to create a global network of MPAs.
In conjunction with the Pitcairn pledge, the Bertarelli Foundation announced a commitment towards a satellite monitoring system that will enable the detection of illegal fishing activity in real time – the first time a government has combined a marine reserve with technology for surveillance and enforcement of a protected area.
Following the news of the Pitcairn pledge, Conservative politician Zac Goldsmith said: “This is wonderful news. Today’s action by Prime Minister Cameron will protect the true bounty of the Pitcairn Islands — the array of unique marine life in the surrounding pristine seas” before adding “Pitcairn is not our only large ocean territory, and we should be looking for similar opportunities elsewhere.”
The UK’s oceanic conservation
The Pitcairn decision may have been in response to Great British Oceans, a campaign forged in February 2015 by more than 100 conservation and environmental organisations and scientists including the Zoological Society of London, Greenpeace UK, Marine Conservation Society, Pew Charitable Trusts, National Geographic Society, Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Marine Reserves Coalition.
Great British Oceans is an initiative designed to encourage the UK Government to create fully protected marine reserves in the UK Overseas Territories.
The UK currently has jurisdiction over the world’s fifth largest maritime zone which measures 6.8 million square kilometres, an area of ocean more than twice the size of India and 30 times the size of the UK. This puts the UK in a position of responsibility for oceanic protection but also provides them with an opportunity to set a benchmark around the world against which the ocean conservation efforts of other governments can be judged.
At present, only 1 percent of the world’s oceans are fully protected. The designation of the Pitcairn marine reserve means that the UK Government is now fully protecting approximately 30 percent of its waters, the highest percentage of any country’s waters on Earth. The Pitcairn marine reserve will also increase the global fully-protect area by a quarter.
The Pitcairn marine reserve also means that the UK now has the two largest marine reserves in the world. It is another exemplary step in ocean conservation legacies for the UK, building upon the work started when David Miliband, under the UK Government’s previous administration, declared a reserve around the Chagos Islands in April 2010.
The Pitcairn marine reserve has been met with universal praise from activists and celebrities including Gillian Anderson, Julie Christie and Helena Bonham-Carter. It also recognises the UK’s role as a leader in ocean conservation.
Matt Rand, director of Global Ocean Legacy, said: “With this designation, the United Kingdom raises the bar for protection of our ocean and sets a new standard for others to follow. The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve will build a refuge of untouched ocean to protect and conserve a wealth of marine life.”
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, a British celebrity chef and activist whose Fish Fight campaign supported sustainable fishing said: “This Government really does mean business when it comes to marine conservation. It is an excellent step forward towards better protection of our seas for the benefit of future generations.”
The Ocean Elders, a collective of global leaders including H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, Sir Richard Branson and James Cameron, said: “We are delighted that the UK Government is showing global leadership through its designation of a marine reserve in the Pitcairn Group of Islands” and added “We urge other countries to follow suit.”
One of the most important things any government can do, besides protecting its citizens, is to try implement action that ensures they leave the world in a better place than when they came into power. Regardless of where your political persuasions lie, I think we can all agree that this initiative introduced by the UK Government to protect the marine wildlife surrounding the Pitcairn Islands is an absolute good.
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