This week saw an impassioned plea from one of the Indian Oceans foremost marine biologists to create the Worlds biggest no-take marine reserve. The proposal presented by Prof Charles Sheppard at the Reef Conservation UK conference in London is to turn the entire Chagos Archipelago located in the centre of the Indian Ocean into one enormous marine sanctuary.
The bold plan supported by a network of institutions and scientists (the Chagos Trust) involved with conservation and research in the Chagos Archipelago and recently submitted to the UK government would double the entire global area of no-take areas and increase the total coverage of marine reserves by 13%.
But why is this important? The Archipelago contains ½ of the Indian oceans remaining healthy coral reefs, and harbours the world’s largest coral atoll in a quarter of a million square miles of the world’s cleanest seas. Creating the Worlds biggest MPA would prevent one of the last bastions of untouched coral reefs succumbing to the increasing intensity of fishing that is beginning to change these pristine reefs forever.
Creating such an enormous marine reserve would not only protect the internal biodiversity of the Chagos but would serve to add greater resilience to the marine environment of the entire Indian Ocean. Supported by global NGO’s such as the Pew Foundation the Chagos Archipelago would act as a legacy site, ensuring that nations such as the Maldives and the Seychelles, who are only just developing sufficient capacity to manage their reef systems will have the capacity to recover into the future. The Chagos would act as one large source of productivity to support diversity throughout the Indian Ocean.
For those such as myself who were not around the remember the complex politics of the Chagos, they have belonged to Britain since 1814 (the Treaty of Paris) and are constituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). In the 1960s and 70s, Britain secretly removed the Chagos Islanders off their islands, to make way for a US and British military base. Only Diego Garcia, where there is a base, now remains inhabited (by military personnel and employees). The other 54 tiny islands add up to only 16 square kms (8 square miles) in total. It is now by far Britain’s greatest area of marine biodiversity.
At a time of increasing appreciation of the marine environment in the UK through the development of the Marine Bill it is time that its other areas of Britains biodiversity such as the Chagos receive similar protection.
Developing the Chagos as a full No-take area was described by Prof. Sheppard as creating an insurance policy for the Worlds oceans. This is critically important at a time of increasing climate change that threatens the Worlds biodiversity.
Whereas many of the Worlds proposed marine reserves involve complex political difficulties the potential of protecting the Chagos Archipelago is politically possible. There are little in the way of commercial fishing interests associated to the Islands, and many of these are Illegal. If any Islanders do ever return to the Archipelago, numbers are likely to be so low as to easily fit into a future management plan, and many of the stakeholders with interests in the islands are currently in support of the proposals.
As the newly established ProtectChagos.org website states “Now, before it is too late, there is an opportunity to save this precious natural environment, creating a conservation area comparable with the Galápagos or the Great Barrier Reef”.