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UK doubles world’s protected oceans

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband announced the creation of a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the British Indian Ocean Territory yesterday, doubling the total area of the world’s oceans under official protection.

The new MPA includes a “no-take” marine reserve where commercial fishing, including whaling, will be banned.

The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) consists of 55 tiny islands which sit in a quarter of a million square miles (540,000 square km) of the world’s cleanest seas, the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office said in a news statement.

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The largest of the coral atolls of the Chagos Archipelago, Diego Garcia, is visible in this northwest-looking view. Diego Garcia is approximately 350 miles (560 km) south of the Maldive Islands in the central Indian Ocean. The island is the site of a joint UK-U.S. Naval Air and Communications base. All the remaining islands of the archipelago are uninhabited.

Image courtesy of NASA-JSC-ES&IA

Announcing the creation of the Chagos Archipelago MPA, Miliband said:

“I am today instructing the Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territory to declare a Marine Protected Area.

“The MPA will cover some quarter of a million square miles and its establishment will double the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection.

“Its creation is a major step forward for protecting the oceans, not just around BIOT itself, but also throughout the world. This measure is a further demonstration of how the UK takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously.

“The territory offers great scope for research in all fields of oceanography, biodiversity and many aspects of climate change, which are core research issues for UK science.”

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Maps courtesy of CIA World Factbook

Miliband said he had taken the decision to create the marine reserve following a full consultation, and careful consideration of the many issues and interests involved. “The response to the consultation was impressive both in terms of quality and quantity. We intend to continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders, both in the UK and internationally, in implementing the MPA.”

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The brain coral Ctenella chagius is endemic to the reefs of the Chagos.

Photo by Charles Sheppard-University of Warwick/Wikimedia Commons 

The creation of the MPA will not change the UK’s commitment to cede the BIOT to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defense purposes,” Miliband said. The Chagos Islands have belonged to Britain since 1814 (The Treaty of Paris) and are constituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Only Diego Garcia, where there is a military base, is inhabited (by military personnel and employees, the Foreign Office explained.

“The idea of making the British Indian Ocean Territory an MPA has the support of an impressive range of UK and international environmental organisations coming together under the auspices of the “Chagos Environment Network” to help enhance the environmental protection in BIOT,” the Foreign Office said in a news statement. “Also, well over 90 percent of those who responded to the consultation made clear that they supported greater marine protection.”

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Coral in the reef of the Chagos Archipelago.

Photo by Charles and Anne Sheppard-www.bio.warwick.ac.uk/Wikimedia Commons

Pollutant levels in Chagos waters and marine life are exceptionally low, mostly below detection levels at 1 part per trillion using the most sensitive instrumentation available, making it an appropriate global reference baseline, the Foreign Office added.

“Scientists also advise us that BIOT is likely to be key, both in research and geographical terms, to the repopulation of coral systems along the East Coast of Africa and hence to the recovery in marine food supply in sub-Saharan Africa. BIOT waters will continue to be patrolled by the territory’s patrol vessel, which will enforce the MPA conditions.”

The “decision by the British Government is inspirational. It will protect a treasure trove of tropical, marine wildlife for posterity and create a safe haven for breeding fish stocks for the benefit of people in the region,” said William Marsden, Chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust. “Our Trust has worked for the protection of Chagos for 20 years and we applaud this wonderful UK contribution for 2010, International Year of Biodiversity.”

The Washington, D.C.-based Pew Environment Group commended Miliband for designating the Chagos Islands as the world’s largest marine reserve.

Historic victory for ocean conservation

“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,” Pew said in a news statement.

“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 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,” Pew said in a statement. “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, 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 surpassed that size by 70,000 square miles (181,000 square kilometers),” Pew said.

“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.”

“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.”