Tiny Atlantic island takes giant leap towards protecting world's oceans

UK overseas territory Tristan da Cunha’s new marine protected area will be fourth largest sanctuary of its kind

Rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha
Rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha will be among a wealth of marine life to benefit. Photograph: Trevor Glass/RSPB/PA
Rockhopper penguins on Tristan da Cunha will be among a wealth of marine life to benefit. Photograph: Trevor Glass/RSPB/PA
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Last modified on Mon 16 Nov 2020 04.30 EST

A community of 250 people on one of the most remote inhabited islands on Earth has made a significant contribution to marine wildlife conservation by banning bottom-trawling fishing, deep-sea mining and other harmful activities from its waters.

The government of Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic archipelago in the south Atlantic and part of the UK’s overseas territories, has announced that almost 700,000 sq km of its waters will become a marine protected area (MPA), the fourth largest such sanctuary in the world.

In doing so, the community will safeguard the area’s wealth of wildlife, including sevengill sharks, the globally threatened yellow-nosed albatross and Atlantic petrel, rockhopper penguins and other birds that live there, and help the UK government achieve its target of protecting 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

The UK, which has a duty to protect wildlife found in all its territories, will be responsible for the long-term monitoring and enforcement of this vast area – three times the size of Britain and 2,400km from the nearest habitation, Saint Helena.

Tristan da Cunha marine sanctuary
The marine sanctuary off Tristan da Cunha will be the fourth largest in the world. Photograph: Andy Schofield/RSPB/PA

James Glass, Tristan da Cunha chief islander, said: “Our life on Tristan da Cunha has always been based around our relationship with the sea, and that continues today. The Tristan community is deeply committed to conservation: on land, we’ve already declared protected status for more than half our territory.

“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.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he was delighted at the development, supported by Britain’s “blue belt’ programme, as it meant the UK was now protecting 4.3m sq km, or 1% of the world’s oceans.

In a statement, the prime minister called on other nations to join Britain in its ambition to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2020. He 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.

“We need collective global action if we are to bequeath a world that is every bit as wonderful and magnificent as the one we inherited.”

The RSPB described the new MPA as the “jewel in the crown of UK marine protection”.

Beccy Speight, its chief executive, said: “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.”

Lord Goldsmith, UK minister for the environment, described the announcement as a “huge environmental win” and a “critically important step in protecting the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems”.

Elephant seal, Tristan da Cunha
Tristan da Cunha has some of the richest biodiversity in the world, including elephant seals, threatened shark species and rare seabirds. Photograph: Andy Schofield/RSPB/PA

However, some NGOs contrasted Britain’s support for marine protection in its overseas territories with its record on safeguarding marine habitats at home. The Guardian recently revealed that all but two of Britain’s offshore MPAs were being bottom trawled.

Jonathan Hall, head of UK overseas territories for the RSPB, said: “We should also be looking at protecting UK waters. The contrast is stark. We have this small community that is showing leadership in protecting their waters, but there have been lots of examples this year where more effective management of our existing protected areas is needed.”

Melissa Moore, head of policy at Oceana UK, said: “We welcome government’s efforts to get more nations signed up to protect 30% of their seas. However, it is farcical to support protection overseas but not in UK waters – they must also protect all UK marine protected areas from damaging activities like bottom trawling, just as Tristan da Cunha will.”

The announcement is the result of an international partnership 20 years in the making, involving the RSPB, the UK government and an international coalition of partners including National Geographic and the Blue Marine Foundation.