On 1st April, 2010 the Chagos Archipelago was designated as a fully no-take marine reserve. This declaration makes it the largest such reserve in the world, totaling more than 640,000 square kilometres (397,678 square miles), an area more than twice the size of the U.K. The combination of tropical islands, unspoiled coral reefs and adjacent oceanic abyss makes this area comparable in global importance to the Great Barrier Reef or Galapagos Islands. As a fully protected marine reserve, all extractive activities, such as industrial fishing and deep sea mining, will be prohibited in the Chagos. This decision will safeguard the rich diversity of marine life found in the area.
Video: Professor Charles Sheppard explains what's so special about the Chagos Islands, and why it's vital to preserve this unique environment.
The UK is committed to protecting marine biodiversity, both through its own Marine Access Bill and also through numerous EU and international agreements. But what is so special about the Chagos Islands and waters? What are the values that deserve recognition and protection?
Creating one of the world’s greatest conservation areas
Located in the centre of the Indian Ocean, the Chagos contains the world’s largest coral atoll and the greatest marine biodiversity in the UK by far. It also has one of the healthiest reef systems in the cleanest waters in the world, supporting half the total area of good quality reefs in the Indian Ocean. As a result, the ecosystems of the Chagos have so far proven resilient to climate change and environmental disruptions. The new Chagos Marine Reserve is as important as the Galapagos or the Great Barrier Reef, and with the whole of its territorial waters included, is the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve. Very large marine reserves, which include a variety of habitats and species, are known to be more effective in maintaining links between ecosystems and supporting healthy populations of fish and other sea life. A holistic system of protection is essential in the face of uncertain threats, such as climate change.
Saving coral reefs
The Indian Ocean is surrounded by developing countries, where millions of people are dependent on coral reefs for food, building materials, coastal protection and financial security from recreation and tourism. Reefs in many coastal areas are degraded because of the direct impact of human activities, and a changing climate. The reefs of the Chagos have been damaged by sea warming, but because of the lack of direct human impacts, they have recovered faster than reefs in many coastal areas. The Chagos Marine Reserve therefore protects valuable deep water habitat and one of the world’s most resilient coral reefs at a time when scientists fear that coral reefs face rapid decline due to pollution, warming and ocean acidification. If the Chagos Marine Reserve is managed well, these reefs may remain healthy long enough for climate change mitigation measures to be implemented and provide an opportunity for marine life to seed recovery of degraded reefs elsewhere.
Saving marine wildlife
The new Chagos Marine Reserve helps to maintain the pure and unpolluted waters of the Chagos, providing a safe refuge for its rich marine life, including many threatened species, such as turtles and sharks. Of the Indian Ocean coral reefs that are considered to be in good condition, 49 percent are found within the Chagos. The ocean habitats around Chagos are expected to be intact and important refuges for deep sea biodiversity since other areas of the Indian Ocean are known to have been heavily exploited.
Rebuilding fish stocks
World fish stocks have declined catastrophically because of destructive and unsustainable fisheries practices. Despite the Fisheries Conservation Management Zone established around the Chagos to control and limit commercial catches, legal and illegal fishing has impacted the area. Sharks, sea cucumbers, turtles and fish are known to have declined as a result of illegal fishing and bycatch from legal fishing. The increased level of environmental protection and enforcement provided by the Chagos Marine Reserve is therefore very much to be welcomed. This large ‘no-take’ protected area will assist population recovery, potentially increasing fish numbers over a much wider area due to the overspill of adults, juveniles and their larvae. The Chagos Marine Reserve will also provide a temporary refuge for migratory species, such as tuna, from exploitation.
Food and jobs for people in the region
Because no-take marine reserves allow wildlife to recover and breed, one of their key roles is to “export” species to other parts of the ocean, which in turn helps to rebuild adjacent populations. This replenishment is hard to quantify, yet could be critical to the continued survival of heavily-harvested populations upon which many people depend for food. In the long-term, the Chagos Marine Reserve will contribute to a richer ocean and should benefit people living in and around that ocean, such as the coastal countries of East Africa and elsewhere.
Reference site for scientific research
The Chagos is one of the few marine locations in the world where lack of direct human impacts offer a glimpse into what ecosystems worldwide might have looked like hundreds of years ago. The marine waters offer an unparalleled opportunity for scientists to study a healthy environment and conduct baseline research for comparison with degraded systems elsewhere. The protected area can serve as a reference site for global scientific research to aid our understanding of such things as climate change, tropical marine ecosystems and the impacts of commercial fisheries.
Discovering secrets of the unexplored, deep and undisturbed ocean
The deep oceanic waters around the Chagos Islands, out to the 200 nautical mile limit, include an exceptional diversity of undersea geological features (such as 6,000m deep trenches, oceanic ridges, and sea mounts). These areas almost certainly harbour many undiscovered and specially adapted species. Although the deepwater habitats surrounding the islands have not been explored or mapped in any detail, work elsewhere in the world has shown that high physical diversity of the sea floor is closely linked to a high diversity of species.
Safeguarding internationally important breeding colonies
The Chagos holds internationally important colonies of breeding seabirds. Over 175,000 pairs of seventeen species of seabirds breed on the atolls. This has resulted in ten of the islands receiving formal Birdlife International recognition as Important Bird Areas. Further conservation management of the atolls, including eradication of rats and other invasive species and restoration of native vegetation in place of coconut palms remaining from the plantation days, will allow the seabirds of the Chagos to be re-established on many of the islands on which they formerly bred. Nesting turtles too will benefit from the additional conservation measures that a protected area will bring.
A major UK contribution to international commitments
The creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve is an important contribution by the UK to various international environmental conventions, such as: The Convention on Biological Diversity; The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea; The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance; the Bonn Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals; the International Convention on the Regulation of Whaling, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Its creation also contributes to the UK’s global commitments, such as halting the decline of biodiversity by 2010, establishing marine protection networks by 2012, and restoring depleted fish stocks to sustainable levels by 2015.