Today, the Pew Environment Group commended U.K. Foreign Minister David Miliband for designating the Chagos Islands, a group of 55 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean, as the world's largest marine reserve. The islands and their surrounding waters cover 210,000 square miles (544,000 square kilometers), an area larger than California and more than 60 times the size of Yellowstone National Park.
As a fully protected marine reserve, the rich diversity of marine life found in the Chagos will now be safeguarded from extractive activities, such as industrial fishing.
“Foreign Minister David Miliband's decision today to fully protect the Chagos Islands and its surrounding waters is a historic victory for global ocean conservation,” said Jay Nelson, director of Global Ocean Legacy, an initiative of the Pew Environment Group.
The Pew Environment Group assembled leading conservation and scientific organizations to advocate for the establishment of a large no-take marine reserve for the Chagos. Groups in support of the designation include the Chagos Conservation Trust, the Linnean Society of London, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Marine Conservation Society, the Zoological Society of London and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
The U.K. government's decision today follows a public consultation during which more than 275,000 people from over 200 nations and territories sent messages in support of full protection of the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters. Leading scientific and conservation organizations that voiced their support included the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Australian Institute of Marine Science, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Oceana, Blue Ocean Institute, Birdlife International and the National Resources Defense Council.
Prior to the British designation today, the world's largest marine reserve was the 140,000 square mile (363,000 square kilometers) Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the waters of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The U.K.'s decision today surpassed that size by 70,000 square miles (181,000 square kilometers).
Rivaling the Galapagos Islands and the Great Barrier Reef in ecological diversity, the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters can serve as a global reference site for scientific research in crucial areas such as ocean acidification, coral reef resilience, sea level rise, fish stock decline, and climate change.
The Chagos Islands provide a safe haven for dwindling populations of sea turtles and more than 175,000 pairs of breeding sea birds, as well as an exceptional diversity of deep water habitats, such as trenches reaching nearly 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) in depth. The waters around the islands are some of the cleanest in the world, contain the world's largest coral reef structure, and are home to 220 species of corals and more than 1,000 species of reef fish. At least 76 species listed on the IUCN's Red List of Endangered Species live in these waters.
“Nearly three quarters of the planet's surface is water, but surprisingly little of it is protected,” said Nelson. “For more than a century we have had the foresight to protect the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park on land, but only recently have we turned our attention to protecting similarly significant places in the sea.”
Through Global Ocean Legacy, the Pew Environment Group works in partnership with local citizens and governments to help establish world-class, highly protected marine reserves that will provide ecosystem-scale benefits and help conserve the world's marine heritage. Global Ocean Legacy is a project in partnership with the Oak Foundation, Lyda Hill, the Robertson Foundation and the Sandler Foundation.
For more than three years, the Pew Environment Group has worked with the U.K. government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) on its proposal for a fully protected marine reserve for the Chagos Islands. In March 2009, the Pew Environment Group, along with a group of leading science and conservation organizations, presented a formal proposal to the FCO for the protection of the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters.
The Pew Environment Group's efforts have played a pivotal role in the designation of marine reserves including the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2006 – which before the Chagos designation, was the world's largest no-take marine reserve – and the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in 2009.