Britain may no longer have an empire, but it still rules a heck of a lot of waves. One of the manifesto commitments of the Conservative party in the last election was to create a “blue belt” of marine protected zones around the 14 overseas territories that still belong to this country. It has started fulfilling the promise and is already protecting more of the sea than any other nation.
How best to conserve marine life? No-take zones, where all fishing is banned, are hard to police and generate little income for locals or to support enforcement of the protection. Yet exploitation of the seas risks causing great damage.
Our home waters are just under 300,000 square miles. The exclusive economic zones of the overseas territories cover nine times as much sea, making the United Kingdom the fifth largest owner of watery real estate, after America, France (which owns big chunks of Polynesia), Australia and Russia. The largest expanses are around South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands, Pitcairn, Tristan da Cunha, the Chagos Archipelago, Bermuda, Ascension Island and St Helena. Most of the rest is in the Caribbean, around the Caymans, Turks and Caicos, British Virgins and Anguilla.
In terms of natural history, these islands and their surrounding seas are 20 times richer in biodiversity than the glacier-scraped lump of rock on which most of us live. The British Isles have just 90 or so endemic species — ones found nowhere else. St Helena alone has more than 500 endemic species, Bermuda 300.
In managing its 2.5 million square miles of sea, the government has a fairly free hand. Take Ascension Island, a young volcano halfway between Africa and South America and the site of the latest marine protected area. There are no Ascension natives. The bulk of the population, known as Saints, come from St Helena but are denied right of abode: that is to say, even if born on Ascension, they must “return” to St Helena if they have no job.
Ascension’s government has already done much to protect the wildlife that depends on the surrounding seas. The green turtle population has increased by 700 per cent in recent decades thanks to strict protection; the main turtle beaches are pockmarked with nesting holes at certain times of the year, as I saw in January. Likewise, the eradication of all feral cats and the neutering of domestic ones has enabled frigatebirds to recolonise the main island in the past four years.
So why not make Ascension’s territorial waters into a pure marine reserve? As a precedent in 2010 the government established a huge no-take zone in the British Indian Ocean territory around the Chagos Archipelago, with the aim of protecting its uniquely pristine and exceptionally rich coral reefs from depredation by shark-finning boats from Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Because the Chagos islanders were controversially removed decades ago, there was no indigenous fishing industry to protest. Likewise last year the government designated a huge marine protected area around the Pitcairn islands in the Pacific, with the support of the 50 or so descendants of the mutiny on the Bounty who inhabit Pitcairn. It is intended to be a no-take zone except for local fishing needs.
The challenge is how to police a remote marine sanctuary. Around Pitcairn the government announced this month that it hopes to solve this problem with satellites and “wave-glider” drones, controlled from Oxfordshire, to track down and identify fishing boats that breach the rules, but this is still very much an experiment.
In January the government announced an Ascension marine protected area. Since the big-eye tuna and marlin that swim past Ascension are ocean nomads spending much of the time on the unprotected high seas, there is still a question mark over how effective a protection zone would be. The exact boundaries have yet to be announced, but the plan is to allow commercial fishing only in an outer zone to the north of the island. Yet that will mean much less revenue for Ascension and the island desperately needs investment in its infrastructure: it has limited ways to generate revenue.
Some local fishing is usually a good thing, rather than bad, because it provides eyes and ears on the water to spot interlopers as well as income for the islanders and revenue to support fishery protection patrols. On Tristan da Cunha, lobsters provide virtually all the island’s income. The local people all down tools and go lobster fishing whenever the sea is calm enough, filling freezers with lobsters for when the next ship calls to export them. They regulate the fishery sustainably, taking only lobsters over a certain size and never with eggs. But international trawlers do raid the nearby seamounts, doing serious damage to isolated populations of fish, and there is little to deter them.
Farther south, around the Falkland Islands, the sustainable exploitation model is working well and the pirates have largely been driven out. In 1986 the government began to regulate what had been a free-for-all squid fishery around the islands, and in 2007 introduced a system of property rights known as “transferable quotas”, whereby each fishing boat has a percentage share of the total quota, which it can buy or sell. This gives fishermen skin in the game and an incentive to make sure there are as many squid as possible, so the total quota is large. They therefore partly police the fishery themselves and it remains highly productive and sustainable.
The vast marine protected area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich islands, established in 2012, has also been a success thanks to well-regulated quotas for fishing Patagonian toothfish while protecting albatross from fishing hooks. Each boat has a radio transponder, carries a government observer, and uses unique hooks so that if birds get caught the culprit can be identified.
In short, there is a quiet revolution going on in the vast blue expanses of Britain’s overseas territories, with the gradual development of policies and technologies to protect and restore populations of fish, birds and coral reefs. America, France and other countries are now beginning to emulate us.
Matt Ridley, a member of the British House of Lords, is an acclaimed author who blogs at www.rationaloptimist.com.