The UK's Chance for an Ocean Legacy

The UK's Chance for an Ocean Legacy

The Claymore II had an impressive roll on as she trundled through a messy South Pacific Ocean toward Pitcairn, one of the world's most remote inhabited islands. I was aboard the 12-passenger working vessel nearing the end of the three-day journey from London to Pitcairn, a British overseas territory at the center of a proposal to create the world's largest marine reserve.

As it happens, it was the same day as the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Wilderness Act, the landmark legislation that defined wilderness in the U.S. as:

"... an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain."

Having been raised in England, I admire the extraordinary heritage of the Wilderness Act, which has protected millions of acres of land in the United States. Standing there on the ship and looking out at the vast waters in front of me, I couldn't help but hope that the UK will take the opportunity to protect our seas in a similar way. We might not have vast domestic landscapes to safeguard as wilderness, but because of our overseas territories such as Pitcairn, the UK is the responsible custodian of more than 6 million square kilometres of ocean--the fifth-largest marine habitat of any country in the world.

Pitcairn© Andrew Christian

Against a backdrop in which the health of the world's oceans is now at risk from climate change and accompanying threats such as temperature rise and ocean acidification, the destruction of marine habitat, extensive pollution coming from land based sources, and overfishing--which has reduced the populations of various species of large fish, such as sharks and tuna, by 90 percent over the past 50 years--the waters around Pitcairn stand out as some of the least impacted by human activity.

Indeed, a survey of Pitcairn's ocean environment, conducted by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Geographic Society in March 2012, revealed a vibrant ecosystem containing at least 1,249 species of plants and animals, including the world's deepest known living plant, a species of encrusting coralline algae found 382 metres below sea level. Protection of these waters would be a significant step forward in shaping the UK's ocean legacy and--by safeguarding one of the least threatened wild places in the world's oceans--would play a crucial role in building the ocean's resilience to some of the impacts of climate change and human activity.

In 2013, two years after Pew began working with the residents of Pitcairn in advocating for designation of the waters around the islands as a fully protected marine reserve, the Pitcairn Island Council was joined by Pew and National Geographic in submitting a proposal to the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to create a marine reserve. 

One challenge involved in the designation of marine reserves in places such as Pitcairn is to ensure that the boundaries of the reserve can be adequately monitored and enforced. Now, thanks to an innovative collaboration between Pew and Satellite Applications Catapult (a U.K. government initiative created to foster economic growth through the exploitation of space), a multi-faceted system is being developed with the capacity to identify vessels that are fishing illegally, to monitor their movement, and to provide information to Port State authorities worldwide to support the interdiction of these vessels, the imposition of heavy fines and the detention of their crews. As this and other technologies are developed, enforcement of marine reserves is becoming significantly easier and more cost effective, even in the ocean's most remote places, such as Pitcairn.

Establishment of a Pitcairn marine reserve by the Government in Westminster would solidify the UK's position as a leader in international conservation at a truly pivotal moment. Will the UK rise to the occasion? Will we be able to say about our oceans what the Wilderness Act says about the American wilderness: "an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain"?

This opinion piece was originally published in The Huffington Post