Have you ever heard of the Pitcairn Islands? Answer: Unless you’ve read or seen Mutiny on the Bounty (based on real events), probably not.
Well, they are a small group of islands in the middle of the Pacific about halfway between New Zealand and South America.
Earlier this month, the British government turned these tiny remote islands into the world’s largest single no take marine reserve! This news comes less than one year after a scientific paper published in the journal PLOS ONE called for immediate protection of these islands. The 2012 study that led to this paper was led by members of the National Geographic Pristine Seas initiative (check our their video of this expedition here). The Pitcairn Islands are home to a remarkable amount of biodiversity and the paper uncovered many as yet undocumented species of coral and fish at these sites. The new reserve is larger than the state of California, and much larger than the U.K. With this new reserve, 30% of U.K. territorial waters are protected, the largest percentage of any country in the world. Here is a map of the new no-take marine reserve.
It’s great to see science being used to inform marine policy in such a way. Pristine Seas has carried out 12 expeditions around the world and 6 of these sites are now protected. In fact, when the expedition to Pitcairn finished in 2012, the local council voted unanimously to set up an MPA. Less than 3 years later, the U.K. government declared this huge no-take reserve. No take reserves aim to prevent fishing (including illegal fishing) through monitoring and enforcement (fines, etc…). Currently, only about 1% of the world’s oceans are protected no-take areas. These protected areas allow for replenishment of fish stocks that are economically viable and necessary to keep the fishing industry (and many people around the world) alive. In addition to fish, these areas also protect benthic organisms such as coral reefs because trawling (a common and destructive type of fishing) is prohibited. Trawling is a good way to catch a lot of fish, but it also scours the bottom and destroys fragile and long-lived ecosystems such as coral reefs that can take decades or centuries to grow back (if they grow back at all). Reserves like this are awesome and it is great to see a government take steps towards protection.
The U.K. is not alone. Last year President Obama declared the world’s largest network of no-take marine reserves centered around the Pacific Remote Islands National Monument. More recently, two large reserves off of the California coast have been expanded. Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farollones National Marine Sanctuaries are located just offshore in the San Francisco Area and run from the edge of the Monterrey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in the south, past the bay, through Point Reyes, and up into Mendocino County. Both sanctuaries have been almost doubled in size. This decision was reached via deliberation with NOAA and public comment. The reasoning behind the expansion was to protect the nutrient-rich upwelling zone that originates at Point Arena (the north end of the new zone). This upwelling brings nutrient rich water to the surface. That water is carried south in the prevailing current (and with it, any marine organisms that cannot swim against the current) through the marine sanctuaries. This upwelling system is the reason why the interidal and coastal regions of central California are so productive. These ecosystems are the habitat for 25 endangered species. Again, it’s great to see policy take action and it’s even better when that policy is backed by science. Protecting our coastal oceans is greatly important, as we are having the most negative impacts in these areas (and they are often the most productive parts of the sea). Protecting pristine islands is also important, as they are great hotspots for biodiversity. The ocean is a wonderful resource, but we are using it at a more than unsustainable rate. These new protected areas are steps in the right direction. Let’s hope the trend continues.