The U.K. government has announced that it will create a massive marine reserve in the heart of the Atlantic Ocean. Surrounding Ascension Island, the newly protected area will cover almost the same area as the entire U.K., and will put over half of the overseas territory’s waters out of bounds to fishing. The remaining area of sea surrounding the remote island will then be tightly monitored and managed through patrol boats and satellite imagery to prevent illegal trawling.
“Our work is of course only beginning,” says Clare Brook, the CEO of the Blue Marine Foundation, who have been instrumental in campaigning for the reserve. “In the coming year we will ensure not only that the newly declared closed area is effectively monitored, and that the fishing zone is managed to best practice, but that the U.K. government recognises Ascension’s significance as a territory. We want to help Ascension benefit from its extraordinary marine life by encouraging more scientific expeditions and eco-tourism.”
The island is critically important for nesting green turtles, with around 25,000 laying eggs each year. Drew Avery/Flickr CC By 2.0
The island has been recognized as critically important for the wildlife it supports. While on the main island many of the seabirds it used to support have been eradicated due to the introduction of cats and rats in the 19th century, the birds have managed to survive on the outcrops surrounding the island. These seabirds include the endemic Ascension frigate bird, as well as globally important breeding populations of tropicbirds and sooty terns.
The island is said to have some of the largest marlin fish in the world, and is also the site of the second largest nesting site of green turtles in the Atlantic, with around 25,000 of the animals laying their eggs on the beaches each year.
It is the only place in the world where the Ascension frigate bird nests. Drew Avery/Flickr CC BY 2.0
Previously, the Ascension Island government was forced to sell fishing licenses to foreign fishing vessels, mainly those from Taiwan, to raise much-needed cash. But thanks to a donation from the Louis Bacon Foundation of £300,000, the island will now be able to use this fund to cover the cost of enforcement over the coming fishing season, as well as contribute to surveillance using both patrol boats and satellite images, which will be monitored by an Oxford University-based project. It will also enforce a ban on shark finning, as well as making sure each fishing vessel now has the equipment needed to release accidently caught seabirds, turtles and sharks unharmed.
“Ascension has been at the frontier of science since Charles Darwin went there in the 19th century, so it is entirely appropriate that it is now at the centre of a great scientific effort to design the Atlantic’s largest marine reserve,” explains Charles Clover, author of a book about overfishing, "The End of the Line," and executive chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation.
Main image: Warren Evans/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0