A Celebration of the Chagos Marine Protected Area

Last night the BES’s Policy Officer attended an event to celebrate the founding of the world’s largest Marine Protected Area (MPA), around the Chagos Archipelago. The programme of talks and networking was organised by the Chagos Conservation Trust, a charitable trust which, with other partners in the Chagos Environment Network, including the RSPB, Royal Society and Pew Environment Group, actively promote conservation of the Chagos. The highlights of the evening however were however two short films which showcased the huge biological diversity of the seas around the Chagos, with turtles, sharks, rays and a huge number of fish species caught on camera. The films also made clear the diversity of avian and crustacean species inhabiting the islands.

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office designated the waters around the Chagos as a Marine Protected Area on 1st April 2010, following a consultation to which the BES responded. The last license to fish in the seas around the Chagos expired at the end of October, meaning that from the 1st November this year, all fishing is prohibited. The Chagos MPA encompasses more than 500,000 km2 of the Indian Ocean, one of the most heavily fished and degraded oceans in the world. At this size, the MPA represents 13% of all oceans held in protected areas worldwide (which currently equate to 1.12% of oceans, with only 0.08% having total protection, as ‘no take’ zones). At the CBD in Nagoya in October this year, parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity agreed to a target to designate 10% of the ocean’s surface as protected areas by 2020.

Perhaps the most interesting presentation of the evening was delivered by Carl Gustaf Lundin, Head of the IUCN Marine and Polar Programme. The presentation focused on how the MPA can now be taken forward, including priorities for research, the development of regulation and enforcement of the MPA as a no-take reserve. Mr Lundin suggested that ‘zoning’ could be a useful approach to regulation, as in the Great Barrier Reef, proposing that tourism could be allowed in certain areas to provide money to support conservation. He saw enforcement as the priority for the MPA in the next couple of years, suggesting that a lenient attitude had been adopted to date with regard to illegal fishing: he stressed that even the smallest fishing vessels should be stopped.

Following Mr Lundin’s presentation, a representative from the FCO stood up to say a few words. He stressed the commitment of the Coalition Government to the conservation of the MPA in the Chagos, but highlighted the political realities impinging upon the success of the project – mainly relationships with the countries neighbouring the MPA (particularly Mauritius, which does not respect UK sovereignity over the British Indian Ocean Territory). The ongoing legal challenge in the European Court of Human Rights regarding the right of Chagossian Islanders to return to the islands was also highlighted an issue of which to be aware. A judicial review has been sought by some Chagossians regarding the designation of the MPA.

Overall it is clear that challenges lie ahead for the Chagos MPA, particularly regarding illiegal fishing and providing finance for enforcement of the area’s protected status. However it is clear that designation of the MPA is a very important step, both to safeguard the Chagos’ own phenomenal biodiversity and to provide a test bed for important scientific research, but also as an example which other nations can follow in order to reach the ambitious targets set at Nagoya.