Conserving the Chagos

The BES Policy Team last night attended a meeting and reception organised by the Chagos Environment Network, highlighting the importance of designating the Chagos Archipelago (otherwise known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, or ‘BIOT’) as a highly protected marine reserve. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office earlier this month announced a consultation on the formation of a Marine Protected Area in Chagos – which closes on 12 February.

Presentations from Professor Carl Lundin (IUCN) and Professor Charles Sheppard (Warwick University) highlighted the pristine marine environment of Chagos, whist Alastair Gammell, Pew Environment Group, encouraged all present to respond robustly to the UK Government’s consultation. Professor Lundin began by comparing the relative numbers of protected areas designated on land and at sea. Over the past 125 years, over 125,000 protected areas have been created on land; a relative success story. At sea however, despite many international commitments to create protected areas (Convention on Biological Diversity: designate 10% of signatories’ Exclusive Economic Zones as protected by 2010; World Parks Congress: designate 20% of the world’s oceans by 2020; OSPAR and the World Congress on Sustainable Development, for example), based on the current trajectory society is on in actually putting these into practice, we will not achieve the CBD targets until 2047 and the World Parks Congress targets until the 2080’s.

All speakers stressed that the Chagos offer an opportunity to achieve something which could not be achieved elsewhere; the conservation of a near-pristine coral reef system, largely removed from stressors such as pollution and over-fishing. Although climate change poses a severe risk to the reefs, the absence of these other stressors mean that the reef is more resilient to change: for example, in the severe coral reef bleaching event in 1998 (caused by the El Nino phenomenon), 50% of corals in Chagos died. However, now many are recovering: a recovery not seen elsewhere (for example in the Seychelles, where 98% of corals were killed through bleaching). Conserving the reefs now could ‘buy thirty years’, in the words of one of the speakers, in which fisheries outside the MPA would be supported, endangered species could find a haven and scientists could conduct vital research.

Introducing a Marine Protected Area in Chagos would allow scientists access to a fantastic resource, offering scope for exploration of the largely unstudied deep sea areas of the archipelago and offering a control site against which interventions to tackle degradation, and climate change, in other reef systems could be assessed. In addition, the Chagos sits on the Southern Equatorial current, so plays a vital role in re-stocking the fisheries and reefs of the Seychelles and Mauritius.

Despite these benefits, final comments from a representative of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office stressed that by no means was the designation of a Marine Protected Area in Chagos certain. He cautioned against the creation of a ‘paper park’, meaning that whatever is put in place must be adequately resourced and policed. The official did not quote a figure for how much this may cost, but acknowledged that greater resource than available in Chagos at the moment would be needed. The FCO consultation quotes a figure of £1 million – already at odds with the figure quoted by Alastair Gammell, during the discussion session, of £2 – 3 million. The legal status of Chagos – which is due to be ceded back to Mauritius when no longer needed for military purposes – and of the Chagossian people, awaiting a verdict from the European Court of Human Rights as to their right to return to their homeland, also create issues which the Government needs to manage extremely sensitively.

Nevertheless, the fact that the UK Government is consulting the scientific community and others about plans for a Marine Protected Area is a very positive step. Much of the content of the consultation came out of a meeting of the Chagos Conservation Network at the Royal Society earlier this year and the presence of officials from both Defra and FCO at the meeting last night was a positive sign. If the whole of Chagos was declared a Marine Protected Area this would increase by tenfold the areas held in MPAs in the Indian Ocean and if, additionally, the Chagos MPA were to be a ‘no-take’ zone, this would double the total area of the world’s oceans treated in this way; a fantastic legacy for the UK Government.