October 29, 2014

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By Jonathan Hall – RSPB UK Overseas Territories Officer

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has initiated and is leading the campaign to create the largest fully-protected marine reserve in the Atlantic in the rich waters of Ascension Island.

A jewel of the tropical Atlantic

The Hope Spot of Ascension Island lies 1,000 miles from the coast of West Africa in the tropical Atlantic. Home to amazing marine biodiversity, this young volcanic island holds the second largest green turtle nesting population in that ocean and an intriguing remote tropical habitat where coral reefs have not arrived. Unique fish species, such as the resplendent angelfish and marmalade razorfish swim in the waters close to the shore. Further out, important populations of threatened tuna stocks – shared with developing West African nations – are found. Bottlenose dolphins and humpback whales swim in the shallows, and huge, record-breaking marlins patrol the deeper waters. Above water, myriads of seabirds depend on ocean predators to drive bait fish to the surface in order to feed. They nest on Ascension in such prolific numbers that it is known as one of the most important tropical seabird sites in the world, and the only known nesting site of the unique Ascension frigatebird.

Frigatebird-DrewAvery

A frigatebird on Ascension Island. © Drew Avery

Ascension’s deep offshore area, incorporating vast underwater volcanoes and part of the Mid-Atlantic rift valley, likely holds significant and as yet unknown deep sea life. Representing a unique mix of eastern and western Atlantic biodiversity, Ascension remains an oasis in a heavily exploited ocean.

The Neglected Atlantic

Our oceans are under severe pressure, and only 3% of global seas are covered by any form of protection. Unlike the Pacific and Indian Oceans however, which now have a number of large and fully-protected marine protected areas (MPAs), the Atlantic has remained largely overlooked.

Given the relative lack of national maritime zones in the tropical Atlantic, and challenge of establishing fully-protected MPAs on the high seas, Ascension represents one of the only opportunities for large-scale full protection in this rich ocean.

A British Opportunity

This is within the gift of the UK Government. Ascension is a UK Overseas Territory with no indigenous population and no right of abode (the right to permanently settle). There are currently about 800 temporary workers on the island, employed mainly in the military facilities. The island is governed by the Ascension Administrator, an employee of the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, so ultimate political leadership for the Island rests with the UK Foreign Secretary.

Ascension at a crossroads

On the eve of the bicentenary of Britain’s settlement on Ascension, the island is at a crossroads in deciding the future management of its marine heritage.

Mars Bay on Ascension Island. © Drew Avery

Mars Bay on Ascension Island. © Drew Avery

From 2010 to 2013, a disastrously-managed fishery was authorised. Licences were sold almost exclusively to Asian long-lining vessels, permitted to come in to Ascension waters to fish and leave without ever touching port. The fishery was suspected of turtle bycatch, shark-finning and appalling slave-like labour conditions. Local conservationists report that previously abundant shark species largely disappeared from inshore waters over this period.

A review of different management options for Ascension’s maritime zone has been instigated, but the stated intention is to reopen this commercial fishery in January 2015.

The RSPB is campaigning for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) not to restart this socially and economically unnecessary fishery, but instead seize the unique opportunity to create a large-scale and fully-protected marine protected area (MPA) around Ascension. Such a world-leading action would provide a fitting celebration for Ascension’s bicentenary, and give this British possession a new long-term role in helping to conserve the Atlantic ocean.

A large-scale fully-protected MPA at Ascension could be enforced via the UK and US military vessels which visit the island every month, working in partnership with the Royal Air Force personnel and the US airbase stationed on Ascension, and through deploying advances in remote sensing and satellite technology. It is estimated that enforcing the Atlantic’s largest fully-protected MPA would cost just £500,000 (about $806,700) per year – extraordinary value in terms of biodiversity gains – and an investment to safeguard a unique Atlantic ecosystem and a legacy for our blue planet.

To learn more about the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, visit their website.

Featured image (top): Comfortless Cove on Ascension Island. © Ben Tullis

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