By Protecting Its Ocean, Tristan da Cunha Safeguards Its Future

Locally driven, science-based efforts result in ambitious marine conservation initiative

By Protecting Its Ocean, Tristan da Cunha Safeguards Its Future
Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross
An Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross sits on Nightingale Island in the UK Overseas Territory of Tristan da Cunha.
James Glass

The people of Tristan da Cunha—the world’s most remote inhabited island, located 2,810 kilometres (1,750 miles) west of South Africa—have always relied heavily on local fisheries for food and income, and keenly understood the importance of sustained ocean health.

Comprising a population of only 260, Tristanians steward a vast and special swathe of ocean. The Tristan da Cunha exclusive economic zone (EEZ) extends across 758,771 square kilometres (292,263 square miles)—three times the size of the United Kingdom mainland—and is one of only a few unexploited temperate marine ecosystems in the world, providing an important baseline for marine habitat research. 

The region provides breeding grounds for blue sharks, migration routes for tuna, and a foothold for cold-water corals and the Tristan rock lobster, which sustains Tristan’s commercial lobster fishery—the foundation of the Tristan economy and livelihood of islanders. The archipelago is also home to some of the most important seabird colonies in the world, including the critically endangered Tristan albatross; the endangered Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross; the spectacled petrel; 85% of the world’s endangered northern rockhopper penguins; and the smallest flightless bird in the world, the Inaccessible Island rail, which breeds only on Inaccessible Island—one of two Tristan UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Understanding the importance of this marine environment and need to defend it from potential threats such as climate change, the Tristan Island Government pledged in 2016 to explore how best to legally protect it. In November 2020, leaders announced a commitment to protect more than 90% of Tristan waters in a marine protection zone (MPZ).

The Tristan da Cunha MPZ, when legally designated later this year, will be the biggest fully protected marine reserve in the Atlantic, and the fourth-largest on the planet. This ambitious move is an important step for the community and reflects its long-term dedication to creating thoughtful protections that maintain ocean health while enhancing the marine ecosystem’s resilience to climate change and respecting the island’s economic reliance on this vital resource. This historic move also furthers the UK’s commitment to create a 4 million-square-kilometre (1.5 million-square-mile) ‘Blue Belt’ around its Overseas Territories.

Driven by local support

The Tristan community has championed the MPZ, just as it supported an earlier commitment to conserve more than 50% of the island’s land area. For over a decade, Tristanians have played the leading role in developing science-based proposals to protect their marine environment. Islanders have also participated in numerous workshops, provided critical data and knowledge for the UK government’s report detailing the need and evidence for marine protections for Tristan da Cunha, and coordinated stakeholders, including UK ministers, global nongovernmental organisations, and scientists to secure long-term support for the implementation of the protected area.

Long-term success relies on careful management

Tristan is not a prosperous island and, although this decision will fully protect a large area of ocean, Tristanians know that their archipelago needs to be managed and protected, for research, for the enjoyment of current and future generations, and for the continued sustainable harvesting of the sea in the 10% of Tristan’s waters not in the MPZ.

rock lobster
James Glass, chief islander of Tristan da Cunha, holds Tristan rock lobster, which are foundational to the Tristan economy.
James Glass

To that end, the Tristan government and UK government’s Blue Belt Programme have co-developed a draft five-year management plan for this marine environment, which will be finalised when legal designation occurs later this year. Long-term partnerships with NGOs such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds will remain critical to Tristan’s conservation goals by providing much needed external skills and resources. The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project and Blue Nature Alliance are also working to support the Tristan people to implement the MPZ.

boat
Tristanians go out to sea to attend to their lobster catch. Between the ages of 5 and 6, children on Tristan begin learning to fish for lobster. At age 16, they leave school to work a season or two as an apprentice before becoming full-time fishermen.
James Glass

Tristanians proudly see themselves as guardians of the South Atlantic. These protections will help enhance the resilience of the local marine environment against the impacts of climate change and preserve the way of life for Tristanians for generations to come. If the world’s most remote community can make a difference by protecting more than 90% of its waters, which they depend on for survival, others across the world can follow suit and work diligently to protect marine biodiversity and tackle climate change on a global scale.

Johnny Briggs is a senior officer with the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project, and James Glass is the chief islander for Tristan da Cunha.

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The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project welcomes the commitment by the Tristan da Cunha Island Council on Nov. 13 to designate most of the archipelago’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) as a marine protection zone.

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Issue Brief

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In the remote waters of the South Atlantic Ocean lies the Tristan da Cunha archipelago, some 2,400 kilometres west of South Africa. A chain of four islands, Tristan da Cunha covers a small land area but it has an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) close to three times the size of the United Kingdom: 754,000 square kilometres.