Fact Sheet

The Pitcairn Islands

The world’s largest fully protected marine reserve

Yellow-edged lyretail© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Yellow-edged lyretail (Variola louti).


In March 2015, the United Kingdom declared the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the remote waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The designation marks the first time any government has combined creation of a fully protected marine area with detailed plans for surveillance and enforcement that include use of the most up-to-date technology available. This approach sets a new standard for the comprehensive monitoring of protected areas. In 2013, The Pew Charitable Trusts and The National Geographic Society joined the local government, the Pitcairn Island Council, in submitting a proposal calling for creation of a marine reserve to protect these spectacular waters.

The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve spans 834,334 square kilometres (322,138 square miles). Together with the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean, designated in 2010, the United Kingdom has created the world’s two biggest fully protected marine areas, totalling 1,474,334 square kilometres (569,243 square miles). Through these actions, the United Kingdom—caretaker of the fifth-greatest amount of marine habitat of any country in the world—has established its place as a global leader in ocean conservation.

Encompassing 99 per cent of Pitcairn’s exclusive economic zone, the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve is about 3½ times the size of the land area of the United Kingdom. Within the reserve, all forms of commercial extractive activity such as fishing and oil, gas, and mineral mining are prohibited, but traditional sustenance fishing by Pitcairn islanders is allowed. The reserve starts 12 nautical miles from Pitcairn Island and extends out to the full 200-nautical-mile limit of these waters.

The British overseas territory is composed of four islands: Pitcairn, Henderson, Oeno, and Ducie. Only Pitcairn is inhabited. Most of its population of about 50 residents are descendants of the mutineers who took control of the British Royal Navy’s HMS Bounty in the late 18th century.

Pitcairn lies about 689 kilometres (428 miles) from Mangareva in French Polynesia and 1,920 kilometres (1,193 miles) from Easter Island.

An underwater bounty

Pitcairn hosts one of the most intact marine ecosystems on the planet with some 1,249 identified species, including the world’s deepest known living plant, a species of encrusting coralline algae. The territory has some of the clearest ocean waters anywhere, which allow corals to grow at depths greater than expected in Pacific reefs.

Within these waters lie a complex community of hard and soft corals that are home to hundreds of species of fish, including two found nowhere else on Earth: the squirrelfish and the many-spined butterflyfish.

The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve contains at least 69 seamounts and 327 knolls, which are important habitats for many aquatic predators, fish, and invertebrates and prime places for feeding and breeding.

The marine reserve will help protect the 1,249 known plants and animals found in these waters, including 365 species of fish, 22 species of whales and dolphins, and two species of turtles. © Andrew Christian

The marine reserve will help protect the 1,249 known plants and animals found in these waters, including 365 species of fish, 22 species of whales and dolphins, and two species of turtles.

Project Eyes on the Seas

The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve sets a new standard for monitoring protected areas. In conjunction with the designation, the Bertarelli Foundation announced a five-year commitment to support the monitoring of the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve as part of Pew’s Project Eyes on the Seas, using a technology known as the Virtual Watch Room. The Virtual Watch Room uses satellites to provide a real-time picture of activity on the water.

Developed in collaboration with the UK-based Satellite Applications Catapult, the system helps officials detect illegal fishing activity within moments of it happening. And that will allow British enforcement agencies to protect the reserve’s boundaries and the ocean life within it.

About Global Ocean Legacy

The ocean plays an essential role in sustaining life on our planet. It covers nearly three-quarters of the globe and is home to nearly half of the world’s known species—and many more yet to be discovered. The ocean provides sustenance for billions of people and myriad wildlife.

Global Ocean Legacy, a project of Pew and its partners, is working with local communities, governments, and scientists around the world to protect and conserve some of our most important and unspoiled ocean environments.

Together we are establishing the world’s first generation of great marine parks by securing the designation of large, fully protected reserves. To date, our efforts have helped to double the amount of safeguarded ocean habitat worldwide. Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy program is working with local communities and other partners to seek better protections of the additional U.K. overseas territories of the South Sandwich Islands and Tristan da Cunha.