This week, Britain announced the designation of a vast marine protected area around the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific. At 834,334 square kilometers (322,138 square miles), it will be the world’s largest contiguous ocean reserve.
The four remote islands are a British overseas territory, and the area around them are home to at least 1,249 species of fish, seabirds, and marine mammals, according to a Pew Charitable Trust press release. In 2013, Pew and National Geographic joined the Pitcairn Island Council to submit a proposal calling for the creation of such a refuge. The move will hopefully protect the area from illegal fishing activities.
Only one of the islands, Pitcairn, is inhabited. The 1789 mutiny aboard the HMS Bounty occurred nearby, and the 50 or so residents of the island today are the descendants of the mutineers and their Tahitian companions. “People know Pitcairn because of the Mutiny on the Bounty, but their real bounty is the rich marine life underwater,” says Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Sala led a 2012 expedition that helped build the scientific case for the marine protected area (MPA) designation.
“Pitcairn’s waters contain some of the few pristine coral reefs left on the planet,” Sala tells National Geographic News. “They also contain intact seamounts and deep-sea habitats that have not been touched by trawling and which harbor many species yet to be discovered by science.”
This pristine ecosystem houses the world's deepest known living plant, an encrusting coralline algae found 382 meters (1,253 feet) below sea level, and two species that are found nowhere else in the world: the squirrelfish and the many-spined butterfly fish. The reserve will also protect one of the two remaining raised coral atolls on the planet as well as the famous, world’s deepest 40-Mile Reef.
The new reserve will be the largest single marine protected area in the world, though the network of reserves in the Central Pacific created by the U.S. in September—the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument—is bigger in total, at about 1.2 million square kilometers (490,000 square miles).
Based on the 2015 budget [pdf] presented to parliament by Chancellor George Osborne this week, the MPA designation will depend on an agreement with non-governmental organizations for satellite monitoring and with authorities of relevant ports to prevent landing of illegal catch and to identify a practical naval method of enforcing the MPA.
Images: Andrew Christian (top, middle), Satellite Applications Catapult (bottom) via Pew