A massive marine reserve nearly the size of the UK around Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean has been announced by the Blue Marine Foundation. The reserve – covering 234,291 km2 – comes after long negotiations between the British Government, the Ascension Island Government and the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE).
The whole project has been made possible thanks to a generous £300,000 donation from the Bacon Foundation.
More than half (52.6%) of Ascension Island’s beautiful waters will be closed to fishing. The area will be monitored by a combination of a patrol boat and satellite to make sure the other half (47.4%) is fished according to the best international standards.
Ascension Island is a volcanic island in the equatorial waters of the South Atlantic Ocean, about 1,400 miles (2,250 km) from the coast of Brazil and 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from the coast of Africa. (Image: greatbritishoceans.org)
The final boundaries of the marine reserve will be published by 2017, says BLUE.
The Blue Marine Foundation, alongside the GB Oceans collaboration and the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds), have been campaigning since September 2014 for the protection of the waters around Ascension Island, which BLUE Ambassador Sylvia Earle described as a ‘hope spot’.
Exceptional marine biodiversity around Ascension Island
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the waters have an exceptional marine biodiversity.
Some of the largest marlin – a beautiful fish with a spear-like snout and a long, rigid dorsal fin – swim in the Ascension waters. It also has one of the biggest populations of green turtles, large colonies of tropical seabirds including the area’s unique frigate bird, and several species of fish that exist nowhere else.
The offensively named bastard cunningish (Prognathodes dichrous), also known as the hedgehog butteflyfish, which is typically found on rocky reefs, is limited to just two islands – Ascension and Saint Helena.
These green turtle hatchlings are running for their lives towards the Ascension Island waters, trying to avoid being eaten by flying predators. (Image: ascension-island.gov.ac)
UK Government to protect the marine reserve
BLUE says it is delighted not only with the Bacon Foundation’s generous donation, but also with the British Government, which has pledged to step in to make sure these waters are protected ‘in perpetuity’.
The Minister for the UK Overseas Territories, James Duddridge, said:
“The UK Government is particularly grateful to the Bacon Foundation for providing £300,000 to cover costs of enforcement over the coming fishing season and to contribute to surveillance, science and management for the next 18 months.”
The marine life in the waters around Ascension Island is literally breathtaking. (Image: ascension-island.gov.ac)
“This will aid the Ascension Island Government in identifying and securing the future size and shape of a fully protected marine reserve in at least 50 per cent of Ascension’s maritime zone. This reserve could be ready for formal designation as soon as 2017, once further scientific data has been collected and analysed.”
The protected area includes everything within fifty nautical miles of Ascension Island and everything south of 8 degrees south.
The area will act as a buffer around the important inshore areas, and includes underwater mountains (seamounts) which attract several vulnerable species, including sharks.
An Ascension Frigatebird chick. The species is found nowhere else in the world. (Image: ascension-island.gov.ac)
Patrol boat and satellite monitoring
Monitoring the area and enforcing compliance with protection regulations will be carried out using a combination of satellite and a patrol vessel, what BLUE calls a ‘belt and braces’ approach to ensure “the most effective apprehension of Illegal Unreported and Unregulated vessels.”
Suspicious boats will be targeted using data from satellite, which will be provided by an Oxford University based project, as well as Satellite Applications Catapult, a satellite intelligence company.
The patrol boat will navigate around the island continuously, monitoring both the protected and fishing areas.
Commercial fishing will be permitted to the north of the island, However, it will now be carefully monitored to ensure best practice is observed, including a complete ban on shark finning, and catch restrictions on a number of vulnerable shark species.
Top left: hedgehog butterfly fish. Top right: Lubbock’s damselfish. Bottom left: Diamond lizardfish. Bottom right: Red scorpionfish. (Image: ascension-island.gov.ac)
According to stopsharkfinning.net, shark finning is:
“The practice of slicing off the shark’s fins while the shark is still alive and throwing the rest of its body back into the ocean where it can take days to die what must be an agonising death.”
“Some sharks starve to death, others are slowly eaten by other fish, and some drown, because sharks need to keep moving to force water through their gills for oxygen. Shark fins are used as the principal ingredient of shark fin soup, an Asian ‘delicacy’.”
Fishing boats in the area will be required to carry de-hookers and dip nets to support the live release of accidentally caught sharks, turtles and seabirds.
Less financial pressure on Ascension Island Government
The Ascension Island Government, which is keen to protect its beautiful marine life, has historically been obliged to sell fishing licences to predominantly Taiwanese boats to raise vital revenue, and did not have the financial resources to take on a large-scale marine reserve project.
The offshore long-line fishery in Ascension Island waters historically generated nearly 16% of the local government’s annual budget.
Dr. Judith Brown, Director of Fisheries and Marine Conservation, Ascension Island Government, commented:
“The economic benefit from the fishery has historically provided a much needed income for the Island and this donation from the Bacon Foundation through Blue Marine will help fund the necessary enforcement regime to protect the closed area from illegal fishing.”
CEO of the Blue Marine Foundation, Clare Brook, said:
“Everyone at BLUE is hugely excited to have secured such a large and significant marine reserve in the middle of the tropical Atlantic. It is a fitting reward for months of hard work by the team, by our founders, by our ambassadors and by our donors.”
“Our work is of course only beginning. In the coming year we will ensure not only that the newly declared closed area is effectively monitored, and that the fishing zone is managed to best practice, but that the UK government recognises Ascension’s significance as a territory. We want to help Ascension benefit from its extraordinary marine life by encouraging more scientific expeditions and eco-tourism.”
Executive Chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, Charles Clover, said:
“We would like to thank the Bacon Foundation for its generosity and vision in enabling the eventual creation of a marine reserve nearly the size of the UK. Ascension has been at the frontier of science since Charles Darwin went there in the 19th century, so it is entirely appropriate that it is now at the centre of a great scientific effort to design the Atlantic’s largest marine reserve.”
“It is important to say that the protection of these extraordinary waters cannot happen without local support and we will be campaigning for the British and American governments to recognise that what is needed is nothing more than a new settlement for Ascension, which has previously existed to support its two military bases.”
“It now has a new global role and must be rewarded for taking this on. With the creation of a marine reserve, Ascension will be performing a significant service for the biodiversity of the whole Atlantic. We implore US and UK leaders to recognise the global significance of this proposed reserve and to free up civilian and freight access by air – agreement on which is currently stalled – and to allow the Ascension economy to develop in other ways to benefit from the island’s new role as protector of a vast and less-exploited part of the ocean.”
Video – Exploring the waters around Ascension Island