2016 begins with the creation of the largest marine reserve in Atlantic Ocean
The Blue Marine Foundation said 3 January that it is “delighted to announce the creation of a marine reserve almost the size of the United Kingdom around Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean.”
The reserve which is 234,291km2 in size comes at the end of lengthy negotiations between BLUE, the Ascension Island Government (AIG) and the UK Government, and has been made possible thanks to a grant from the Bacon Foundation.
The £300,000 grant will be used to close an area of 52.6% of Ascension’s waters to fishing, to monitor and enforce the closed area with a combination of satellite and patrol boats, to police a tuna fishery in line with the best international standards in the other 47.4%, and to carry out scientific research to scope the final boundaries of a marine reserve which could be declared, subject to local agreement, as soon as 2017.
Blue Marine Foundation has been campaigning since September 2014, alongside the RSPB and the rest of the GB Oceans coalition, for the protection of Ascension’s waters which have been described as a “hope spot” by BLUE Ambassador Sylvia Earle and which have exceptional marine biodiversity according to the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature).
Ascension’s waters contain some of the largest marlin in the world, one of the largest populations of green turtles, significant colonies of tropical seabirds, the island’s own unique frigate bird and several endemic species of fish found nowhere else in the world, including the offensively named bastard cunningfish.
BLUE is delighted that the Bacon Foundation’s donation will not only ensure that over half of Ascension’s waters remain closed to fishing, but that the UK government will then step in to ensure that these waters remain protected in perpetuity.
James Duddridge, the Minister for the UK Overseas Territories, said “The UK Government is particularly grateful to the Bacon Foundation for providing £300,000 to cover costs of enforcement over the coming fishing season and to contribute to surveillance, science and management for the next 18 months.
“This will aid the Ascension Island Government in identifying and securing the future size and shape of a fully protected marine reserve in at least 50 per cent of Ascension’s maritime zone. This reserve could be ready for formal designation as soon as 2017, once further scientific data has been collected and analysed.”
The closed area will comprise everything within 50 nautical miles of the island and everything south of 8 degrees south. The area has been selected to create a buffer around the important inshore areas and includes seamounts which attract aggregations of vulnerable species, such as sharks.
Monitoring and enforcement will be carried out using a combination of satellite and a patrol vessel, a ‘belt and braces’ approach to ensure the most effective apprehension of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated vessels. Suspect vessels will be targeted using satellite data supplied by an Oxford University based project and the satellite intelligence company Catapult. The patrol vessel will circumnavigate the island, monitoring both the closed area and the fishing area.
Although commercial fishing will be allowed to the north of the island, this will now be carefully monitored to ensure best practice is observed, including a total ban on shark finning and catch restrictions on certain vulnerable shark species. Vessels will be required to carry on board de-hookers and dip nets to support the live release of incidentally caught seabirds, turtles and sharks.
The Ascension Island Government is keen to protect its amazing waters, but has historically been obliged to sell fishing licences to mainly Taiwanese vessels to raise essential revenue, and was unable to take on the long-term financial commitment of monitoring a large-scale marine reserve. The offshore long-line fishery around Ascension historically generated up to 16% of the Ascension Island Government’s (AIG’s) annual budget.
Dr Judith Brown, Director of Fisheries and Marine Conservation, Ascension Island Government, said: “The economic benefit from the fishery has historically provided a much needed income for the Island and this donation from the Bacon Foundation through Blue Marine will help fund the necessary enforcement regime to protect the closed area from illegal fishing.”
Clare Brook, BLUE’s CEO, said “Everyone at BLUE is hugely excited to have secured such a large and significant marine reserve in the middle of the tropical Atlantic. It is a fitting reward for months of hard work by the team, by our founders, by our ambassadors and by our donors.”
“Our work is of course only beginning. In the coming year we will ensure not only that the newly declared closed area is effectively monitored, and that the fishing zone is managed to best practice, but that the UK government recognises Ascension’s significance as a territory. We want to help Ascension benefit from its extraordinary marine life by encouraging more scientific expeditions and eco-tourism.”
Charles Clover, Executive Chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, said “We would like to thank the Bacon Foundation for its generosity and vision in enabling the eventual creation of a marine reserve nearly the size of the UK. Ascension has been at the frontier of science since Charles Darwin went there in the 19th century, so it is entirely appropriate that it is now at the centre of a great scientific effort to design the Atlantic’s largest marine reserve.
“It is important to say that the protection of these extraordinary waters cannot happen without local support and we will be campaigning for the British and American governments to recognise that what is needed is nothing more than a new settlement for Ascension, which has previously existed to support its two military bases. It now has a new global role and must be rewarded for taking this on. With the creation of a marine reserve, Ascension will be performing a significant service for the biodiversity of the whole Atlantic. We implore US and UK leaders to recognise the global significance of this proposed reserve and to free up civilian and freight access by air – agreement on which is currently stalled – and to allow the Ascension economy to develop in other ways to benefit from the island’s new role as protector of a vast and less-exploited part of the ocean.”