One Year On: The World’s Largest Marine Reserve

One year ago, the UK government established the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean, marking an historic victory for global ocean conservation. With this designation, the 55 islands and surrounding waters comprising the Chagos Island archipelago—one of the most remote and unspoiled marine areas on the planet—became the world’s largest no-take marine reserve.

More than 275,000 people from at least 200 countries and territories joined the call from the Chagos Environment Network, Pew’s joint initiative with eight leading conservation and scientific organizations, to protect the Chagos before it is too late.

In the year since the designation, much has been accomplished to ensure that these islands and their surrounding waters will be protected for future generations. These efforts include initiating scientific and conservation projects to restore native vegetation on the islands, ending all legal fishing in the surrounding waters, and launching conservation training for Chagossians.

Alistair Gammell, Global Ocean Legacy’s UK director who oversees our Chagos campaign, reflects on the important role that the Chagos Marine Reserve is playing for global ocean conservation now and into the future.

Q: What is unique about the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters?
The Chagos is one of those increasingly rare places in our oceans that remains largely undisturbed. With some of the cleanest waters in the world, it contains the largest living coral atoll – the Great Chagos Bank – and almost half of the good quality coral remaining in the Indian Ocean. Its rich and diverse ecosystems provide vital nesting grounds for a healthy population of threatened and endangered green and hawksbill turtles and for more than 175,000 pairs of seabirds. The density of fish in the Chagos far outnumbers other areas of the Indian Ocean, and the islands provide a home for the world’s largest terrestrial arthropod – the coconut crab – in numbers simply not found elsewhere.

Q: Why was the establishment of the Chagos Marine Reserve so critical?
Up to the moment the Chagos was protected, approximately 35,000 tonnes of fish, such as bigeye and yellowfin tuna, were being caught legally in Chagos waters annually, with an additional 20,000 sharks and rays being caught and killed accidentally each year. This massive bycatch happened despite the fact that 70% of the shark and ray species found in the Chagos archipelago are viewed as vulnerable and listed as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, a regional fisheries management organisation through which many countries are supposed to cooperate in the sustainable management of these species in the Indian Ocean, is known as one of the weakest of these regulatory bodies. The Western Indian Ocean is one of the most overexploited seas worldwide. Protection of the Chagos gives important protection to these species from overfishing.

Prior to the establishment of the Chagos reserve, less than 0.3% of the world’s oceans were fully protected in no-take marine reserves. The single act of creating the Chagos Marine Reserve – the world’s largest at 544,000 square kilometers (210,000 square miles) – increased this figure by one-third. We badly need to protect our seas if the life within is to survive and we are to hand a healthy planet to our children. Strictly protected areas are an important part of achieving this. The establishment of the Chagos Marine Reserve increased the percentage of overall protection afforded to our oceans. It is particularly important for the significantly overexploited Indian Ocean, which is bordered by many of the world’s poorest, most fish-dependent countries.

Q: How do very large, highly protected marine reserves, like the Chagos Marine Reserve, compare to national parks on land?
Protected areas such as the Serengeti or Yellowstone National Park are universally recognised as great national and global treasures. But protection of the oceans sadly lags far behind what has been accomplished on land. And we are paying a price. Almost everywhere, marine species are being overexploited and declining at alarming rates. Chagos offers a better way and is a beacon of hope for the oceans. It is well understood that larger is better when it comes to protected areas; large areas provide better protection from the inevitable external influences (particularly climate change, overfishing and pollution) that are wreaking havoc on our world’s oceans. Serengeti or Yellowstone wouldn’t be very effective if they were just a few acres in size, and so it is with marine reserves. The Chagos, by its sheer size, will help to provide truly ecosystem-scale protection to the benefit of all the species that live within its waters and for the peoples dependent on the waters of the Indian Ocean for their livelihoods and protein.

Q: What conservation accomplishments have been reached in the year since the designation, and what plans are there for the future?
Most importantly, on November 1, 2010, the last remaining fishing licences in the Chagos expired, and from that moment all legal commercial fishing ceased. Studies undertaken since April 2010 reveal that the Chagos region is 10 times as rich in fish as comparable habitat elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. This shows both the importance of the Chagos reserve and, sadly, the extensive damage to our oceans from overfishing. The ban on fishing in the Chagos will ensure it stays a super rich ecosystem, helping species to recover and hopefully contributing to the improvement of fish stocks elsewhere in the ocean. A Chagos scientific advisory committee is currently being formed and it is hoped that the first meeting will take place within the next month. This will ensure that the reserve is managed to the highest standards possible and will help establish a shared and rigorous scientific agenda for monitoring and scientific discovery in the reserve.

Additionally, during the summer of 2010, the first practical training of Chagossians in conservation skills was undertaken, with two persons trained in diving and coral reef surveys and one person in chainsaw safety and management. A significant conservation project has been launched to restore native vegetation at the Barton Point reserve on Diego Garcia. In response, the red-footed booby population – a fascinating seabird that only breeds on tropical islands – has increased, making this now the largest colony for the species in the Indian Ocean. Planned work for the future includes rat eradication on some of the islands, continued monitoring of reef species and exploration of the deep ocean areas on the eastern side of the marine reserve.

Q: How does the Chagos Marine Reserve fit with efforts to create very large, highly protected marine in other parts of the world?
The Chagos Marine Reserve was the third success for the Pew Environment Group’s Global Ocean Legacy project, following the creation of the Papah?naumoku?kea Marine National Monument in 2006 and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in U.S. waters in 2009. Together, these reserves account for over half of the world’s ocean under full protection, and make up three of the top five largest marine reserve sites in the world. But though this is an encouraging start, protection of the oceans and sea life lags far, far behind protection on land. Through our ongoing efforts in Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda and elsewhere, we hope to encourage more countries to establish large, highly protected no-take marine reserves throughout the oceans and ensure that truly healthy ecosystems can be handed on to future generations.

And just one last thought – take another look at why the Chagos is so special, and why protecting it and other places like it is so important.

Chagos, MPA