Leading conservation groups, scientists and residents of Pitcairn Island today congratulate the UK Government on its decision to create the world’s largest marine reserve around the Pitcairn Islands, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Pacific.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, announced in the Budget that “The government intends to proceed with designation of a MPA around Pitcairn”. This decision begins the process of creating a fully protected marine reserve, extending from 12 miles offshore of Pitcairn Island to the full 200 nautical mile limit of the Territory’s waters, encompassing over 830,000 square kilometres of ocean, an area about 3.5 times the size of the UK.
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 6.8 million square kilometres, over twice the size of India, and nearly 30 times the size of the UK itself. Some 94% of the UK’s biodiversity exists in these Territories.
The announcement of the designation of a Pitcairn marine reserve means that the UK now has the two largest marine reserves in the world, the second largest being the Chagos marine reserve created around the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010. This puts Britain virtually level-pegging with the USA, who top the table for the most marine area fully protected following the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument by President Obama last year.
Pitcairn’s waters host some of the best-preserved marine ecosystems on the planet and are of globally significant biological value. Over 1,200 marine species have been recorded around Pitcairn, including whales and dolphins, 365 species of fish, turtles, seabirds and corals. Forty-eight of these species are globally threatened – such as the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, and some are found nowhere else on Earth – such as the Pitcairn angelfish.
With the designation of the marine reserve, Pitcairn’s waters will become off-limits to all extractive and damaging activities, offering protection from overfishing and illegal pirate fishing, as well as deep-sea mining exploration, pollution and climate change.
Conservationists and the Island’s residents have been campaigning for the creation of a reserve around Pitcairn since 2013. In February 2015 a coalition of over 100 conservation and environmental organisations and scientists launched the www.GreatBritishOceans.org campaign, to encourage the Government to create fully protected marine reserves in the UK Overseas Territories, principally around the Pitcairn Islands, Ascension Island in the Atlantic and the South Sandwich Islands in the Southern Ocean.
The coalition, led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Zoological Society of London, the Blue Marine Foundation, the Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace UK and the National Geographic Society today praises the creation of the Pitcairn marine reserve as a monumental step for ocean conservation.
Excepting today’s announcement, only around 3% of the world’s ocean has any protection at all, and less than 1% is classified as ‘fully protected’. This is despite commitments from 194 countries to protect 10% of the entire global ocean by 2020. The designation of the Pitcairn marine reserve means that the UK Government is now fully protecting nearly a quarter (22%) of waters under British jurisdiction, and has increased the global fully protected area by a quarter.
Members of the Great British Oceans coalition now look forward to working with the Government on expanding the UK’s marine reserve network throughout other Overseas Territories, and the possibility of designating reserves in the waters of Ascension Island and the South Sandwich Islands in the near future.
In conjunction with the designation, the Bertarelli Foundation announced a five-year commitment to support the monitoring of the Pitcairn reserve as part of Pew’s Project Eyes on the Seas. With this satellite system, developed by Pew and the UK-based Satellite Applications Catapult, government officials will be able to monitor and protect the reserve’s boundaries.
A March 2012 scientific survey of Pitcairn's marine environment, led by the National Geographic Pristine Seas project in partnership with Pew, revealed a vibrant ecosystem that includes the world's deepest known living plant, a species of encrusting coralline algae found 382 metres (1,253 feet) below sea level. The reserve also protects one of the two remaining raised coral atolls on the planet as well as 40-Mile Reef, the deepest and most well-developed coral reef known in the world.
"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," said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, head of Society’s Pristine Seas project. "Our first-ever scientific exploration of the area revealed entirely new species as well as an abundance of top predators like sharks."
"It was like traveling to a new world full of hidden and unknown treasures, a world that will now be preserved for generations to come," said Sala.