The UK government has created a marine reserve around the Chagos Islands, the world’s largest coral atoll and part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Encompassing all 55 islands and covering an area of 545,000-sq-km, the UK Foreign Secretary stated that the reserve would ‘double the global coverage of the world’s oceans under protection’. The MPA will include a no-take zone where all commercial fishing and deep-sea mining will be banned. <!–more–>
The Chagos Conservation Trust has championed the creation of this MPA and described the group of islands, which lie due south of the Maldives, as an ”oasis’ for marine and island species’. Chagos contains some of the world’s healthiest coral reefs, supporting at least 220 species of coral and over 1000 different species of fish. The islands are also considered to be a refuge for breeding populations of sharks, dolphins, turtles, and many other vulnerable species.
Through the designation of Chagos as an MPA, not only will it protect a very rare and precious tropical marine ecosystem, but also help with the recovery of fish stocks and food security for people in the region.
Mauritius, however, has asserted a claim to sovereignty over the islands, requiring the UK to return the territory once the the only inhabited island – Diego Garcia – is no longer required as a joint US/UK Air Force base. In addition, the construction of this military base resulted in the eviction of the islands’ former residents between 1967 and 1971, who have been fighting a long-running legal battle in UK courts for the right to return.
Consequently the designation of Chagos as an MPA is not without its complications, although it is expected that the present conditions of the reserve could be adjusted in future if resettlement were permitted, for instance to allow some level of sustainable subsistence fishing for the residents.
The protection of Chagos is a tremendously significant contribution to marine conservation, although now its true protection will depend upon the efficacy of enforcement measures, which are believed to be performed by the territory’s patrol vessel.
For more information on the Chagos Archipelago and its importance be sure to check out the Chagos Conservation Trust’s homepage, and for more detail on the ongoing struggle of Chagos’ former residents more extensive coverage can be on the BBC News page.