A Giant Step for Protecting Ocean Life

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On the first of April, the UK Government took a decision to declare the islands, coral reefs and surrounding seas of the Chagos Islands (a UK Overseas Territory in the middle of the Indian Ocean) as a no-take protected reserve. At 544,000 sq km - an area roughly the size of France - this will be the largest marine protected reserve on Earth and will conserve some of the world's most important coral reefs, seabird and turtle nesting sites, and contribute to much-needed shark, tuna and deep sea conservation.

The Chagos has some of the cleanest seas in the world and contains as much as half of the Indian Ocean's remaining healthy coral reefs, making it one of the most ecologically sound reef systems on the planet. These reefs and seas are home to thriving species of corals and reef fish, as well as over 76 species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species. Surrounding the reefs is an exceptional diversity of deep water habitats, such as trenches reaching nearly 6000 metres in depth. The islands also provide a safe breeding site for dwindling populations of sea turtles and hundreds of thousands of sea birds.

But despite this biological wealth, all is not well in this paradise. The Western Indian Ocean is a region with some of the most heavily exploited, poorly understood and badly enforced fisheries in the world. The current governance for tuna in the Indian Ocean, managed by the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission, has a number of major legal and technical weaknesses. In the Chagos, licensed long-line and purse seine fishing boats have been taking between 700 and 25,000 tonnes of tuna each year.

The bycatch from tuna fisheries in Chagos is also significant; an estimated 60,000 sharks were legally killed in a five year period by long-liners fishing for tuna in Chagos waters. Of these, more than 30,000 were blue sharks, a near-threatened species. It is estimated that in addition to all the sharks, around 60,000 rays were also caught. These two figures take no account of all the other species discarded, mostly dead or dying or those caught by illegal or unregulated fishing. The no-take marine reserve in Chagos will provide a temporary refuge to assist population recovery of migratory species, such as turtles, tuna and sharks.

During the public consultation over a quarter of a million people gave their views and of these, the great majority – well over 90% - made clear that they supported greater marine protection in the Chagos. Nearly 17,000 of these were from France, demonstrating the French people's dedication to the importance of marine conservation. In July 2009, President Sarkozy announced ambitious targets for the protection of France's maritime territory, of 10% by 2012, increasing to 20% by 2020. Worldwide, France controls the second largest, and some of the most biologically important, ocean territory anywhere. The Pew Environment Group would like to encourage the French government to establish very large no-take marine reserves in the seas around France, French Polynesia and elsewhere. The world should be looking to France to live up to its position as one of the leading maritime nations, and implement those commitments whilst there is still time to protect our oceans' future.

By protecting the Chagos, the UK government has demonstrated its leadership in conserving the world's marine resources and has secured a conservation legacy for the benefit of future generations which is unrivalled in scale and significance. Other than some limited commercial fishing interests, everybody will benefit from the establishment of this reserve. This includes all those benefiting from the replenishment of the Western Indian Ocean's marine resources, and from the opportunity for improved climate science and marine research.

Since governments around the globe say they want to conserve the world's resources, let us all press them to emulate the UK and establish large no-take marine reserves. Unless they do so, the world's oceans will continue to be emptied of fish without the possibility of replenishment, and their future will be very bleak indeed.