Vast marine sanctuary created to protect wildlife around remote Atlantic islands

The waters around a remote UK Overseas Territory in the Atlantic Ocean are to become one of the world’s largest marine sanctuaries to protect wildlife.

The government of Tristan da Cunha, in the South Atlantic, has declared a 687,000 square kilometre (265,000 square mile) marine protection zone in the territory’s waters – an area almost three times the size of the UK.

The marine reserve will be a no-take zone, with all fishing and other harmful activities banned to protect the wealth of wildlife found on and around the small chain of islands, including albatross, penguins, whales, sharks and seals.

Tristan Albatross are among the birds who make the archipelago their home (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)
Tristan Albatross are among the birds which make the archipelago their home (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)

It will make the people of Tristan da Cunha, the most remote inhabited island on Earth, guardians of the largest no-take zone in the Atlantic Ocean and the fourth largest highly protected marine area in the world, conservationists said.

The sanctuary joins the UK’s “blue belt” of protected areas around overseas territories, with the British Government responsible for monitoring and enforcement of the reserves using satellite technology.

Conservationists said the sanctuary – whose creation by the local community has been supported by an international partnership – will protect a largely untouched nature haven to tens of millions of seabirds and other wildlife.

Northern rockhopper penguin
Northern rockhopper penguins are found on Tristan da Cunha (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)

Preventing fishing and other extractive activities will preserve habitats and fish stocks that seabirds and marine mammals rely on for food.

Some 90% of the territorial waters of Tristan da Cunha will be entirely off limits to fishing, with sustainable fishing permitted in the remaining 10% for the local community.

The announcement comes 25 years after Gough Island in the archipelago was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site as home to unique wildlife and one of the world’s largest colonies of seabirds.

There are also plans to eradicate invasive mice from Gough Island, where they prey on ground nesting bird eggs and chicks, though this was delayed by the pandemic.

Tristan da Cunha Chief Islander James Glass said the community is deeply committed to conservation and half of the territory’s land already has protected status.

“But the sea is our vital resource, for our economy and ultimately for our long-term survival.

“That’s why we’re fully protecting 90% of our waters – and we’re proud that we can play a key role in preserving the health of the oceans,” he said.

Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross are among the millions of seabirds who nest on the islands of Tristan da Cunha (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)
Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross are among the millions of seabirds which nest on the islands of Tristan da Cunha (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)

Beccy Speight, chief executive of the RSPB which has worked in a conservation partnership with the government of Tristan da Cunha for two decades, said it will be “the jewel in the crown of UK marine protection”.

“Tristan da Cunha is a place like no other. The waters that surround this remote UK Overseas Territory are some of the richest in the world.

“Tens of millions of seabirds soar above the waves, penguins and seals cram on to the beaches, threatened sharks breed offshore, and mysterious whales feed in the deep-water canyons.

“From today, we can say all of this is protected,” she said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said:  “We are in danger of killing our seas. We are warming them up, making them more acidic and every day we fill them with turtle-choking, dolphin-poisoning plastic that is turning our ocean into a vast floating rubbish dump.

“That’s why I am delighted that the United Kingdom has now protected more than 4.3 million square kilometres of the world’s ocean, following Tristan da Cunha’s announcement.”

He called on other nations to join  the UK in its ambition to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030.

Bottlenosed dolphin live in the waters around Tristan da Cunha (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)
Bottlenosed dolphin live in the waters around Tristan da Cunha (Andy Schofield/RSPB Images/PA)

Other Overseas Territories with fully protected marine areas include the British Indian Ocean Territory, or Chagos Islands, Ascension Island in the Atlantic, and the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific.

The international partnership which has worked with Tristan da Cunha includes the UK Government, RSPB, National Geographic Pristine Seas, Blue Nature Alliance, Becht Family Charitable Trust, Blue Marine Foundation, Wyss Foundation, Kaltroco, Don Quixote II Foundation, British Antarctic Survey, University of Plymouth and the Natural History Museum.

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