More than 1.2 million square miles of British ocean to be protected for nature

A Red-tailed Tropicbird chick on Oeno in the Pitcairn Islands, just one of the many seabird species to be found on islands in the UK's Overseas Territories. Photo: Tara Proud (RSPB).
A Red-tailed Tropicbird chick on Oeno in the Pitcairn Islands, just one of the many seabird species to be found on islands in the UK's Overseas Territories. Photo: Tara Proud (RSPB).
The UK and its Overseas Territory governments have jointly announced that more than 1.2 million square miles of ocean will be protected for future generations.

This far-reaching agreement, announced at the Our Oceans conference in Washington DC by the UK and UK Overseas Territory governments, recognises the global importance of our marine wildlife. This commitment will protect these ocean areas from unsustainable and pirate fishing, damaging deep-sea mining and other activities that could be deadly or disruptive for nature, plus help the world meet its global target of protecting 10 per cent of the marine environment by 2020.

Jonathan Hall, RSPB’s Head of UK Overseas Territories, said: “This is simply enormous and shows world-leading vision. In the week where 53 organisations came together to launch the State of Nature 2016 report which showed continuing declines for UK wildlife, the Government and those of our Overseas Territories have now shown fantastic ambition in recognising that we need to protect our rich oceans and the amazing wildlife they hold.”

A Sooty Albatross surveys the scenery in the Tristan da Cunha archipelago from the island of Gough. Photo: Ben Dilley (RSPB).

When taking all 14 of its Overseas Territories into account, the UK is responsible for the fifth largest area of ocean in the world, measuring 4.2 million square miles, over twice the size of India and nearly 30 times the size of the UK itself. This gives the Overseas Territories and the UK a unique opportunity for global leadership in meeting UN Sustainable Development Goal 14 to conserve 10 per cent of the ocean by 2020. Some 94 per cent of unique British wildlife exists in these territories, including more penguins than any other nation on earth and the world’s largest coral atoll.

The UK Overseas Territory governments announcing fully protected marine reserves are:

•  519,466 square miles around the Pitcairn islands in the south Pacific designated as a fully protected marine reserve. This vast archipelago includes Henderson Island, a UK World Heritage  Site. Over 1,200 marine species have been recorded around Pitcairn, including whales and dolphins, 365 species of fish, turtles, seabirds and corals. With the designation of the marine reserve, Pitcairn’s waters will become protected from overfishing and illegal pirate fishing, as well as deep-sea mining exploration, giving these seas more resilience to pollution and climate change.

•  At least 136,000 square miles around Ascension Island in the south Atlantic will be designated a fully-protected marine reserve by 2019. This will be the first large-scale 'no-take' zone anywhere in the Atlantic. The island is one of the most important tropical seabird breeding sites in the world, and also home to the second biggest Green Turtle nesting site in the Atlantic, as well as threatened tuna and record-breaking marlin. The huge fish still found in Ascension’s waters have earned it the nickname of the 'Jurassic Park of the Atlantic'.

Two Overseas Territories have also announced increased levels of protection, to be implemented with UK Government support:

•  276,000 square miles around St Helena in the south Atlantic has been designated as a sustainable-use marine protected area, where damaging fishing methods such as bottom-trawling, gill-nets and purse-seining are now banned.

•  468,000 square miles around Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic will be safeguarded via a protection regime by 2020. This process will be lead by the 270-person Tristan community who call this dormant volcano, the most remote inhabited island in the world, their home. Tristan da Cunha’s waters are filled with penguins, whales, dolphins and sharks, while the offshore islands include the UK World Heritage of Gough Island, described by the IUCN as ‘arguably the most important seabird island in the world’.

The RSPB has been working with Overseas Territory Governments for many years to help protect their waters, as well as with the five other NGO members of the Great British Oceans coalition to bring the UK Government’s ‘Blue Belt’ vision to reality.

“We often think of the UK only as a collection of small islands in the North Atlantic. This makes it hard to imagine that the UK Overseas Territories contain such an incredible variety of life in all shapes and sizes. From vast coral reefs to penguin roosts, mysterious deep-sea canyons to huge seabird colonies, these iconic sites represent the full diverse majesty of our oceans and give us a unique ability to help protect them," Hall said.

“Today’s announcements by the UK Overseas Territory and UK governments give a long-term future to these amazing places, and to the ocean upon which we all depend.” concluded Hall.