By Charles Clover, Executive Director, Blue Marine Foundation
On the morning of Sunday 3 January 2016, the world woke to the news that the British government was proposing to create a “marine reserve nearly the size of the United Kingdom” in the tropical Atlantic around the island of Ascension. It was a moment of triumph for all those who had campaigned so hard for this outcome. The proposed designation of half the waters around Ascension Island would be the largest fully protected marine reserve in the Atlantic Ocean. Yet it is important to understand that what has happened is, for now, just a closure of some but not all of Ascension’s waters to commercial fishing and that a great deal more remains to be done by both British and the US governments if the formal protection of this marine treasure is to succeed and, crucially, to be supported by the local people.
Ascension is a Jurassic park for fish: it has the largest marlin in the Atlantic and record breaking yellowfin tuna, which attract recreational fishermen. Its beaches are pock-marked with craters left by breeding green turtles – for which it is the second most important breeding site in the Atlantic. Ascension is also one of the most important tropical seabird breeding sites in the world. Though a relatively young island, thought to be the result of a volcanic eruption only a million years ago, Ascension has its own unique species, a frigate bird and endemic fish species, such as the resplendent angelfish. For these reasons, Ascension was described as a global “hope spot” for protection by Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue initiative and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) which visited the island to back up the campaign for its protection in 2014. A scientific expedition to Ascension by National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project is planned for next year.
How protection came about is a story of a coalition of conservation groups working in response to a threat. In 2012, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which had been working to protect Ascension’s terrestrial environment for a decade, raised the alarm about the Ascension Island Government’s granting of commercial fishing licences to Taiwanese long-liners targeting bigeye tuna. There was no patrol boat, few observers and no monitoring of landings, by-catch or labour practices. There was worrying evidence that legal and illegal vessels were engaged in shark-finning. In a response to that concern, the Ascension government took the welcome decision at the end of 2013 to close the fishery and review its options.
Then in 2015 something happened back in Britain which set a new level of ambition for that review and for all the UK Overseas Territories, of which Ascension is one. A group of six UK-based NGOs, the RSPB, Blue Marine Foundation, the Pew Trusts, the Zoological Society of London, the Marine Conservation Society and Greenpeace UK – with US support from Oceans 5 and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas project – succeeded in persuading the Conservative party that its chief environmental commitment should be to create a “blue belt” around the overseas territories, and specifically reserves around Ascension in the Atlantic and Pitcairn in the Pacific. The crucial caveat about a reserve around Ascension was that it was “subject to the views of the local community.” Rightly, the party that became the British government after the election did not want to forget people working on the island, who had strong views on protecting their marine resources, but also on economic necessity.
There are only 800 people on Ascension, roughly half of them working for one of the two air bases – one run by the Royal Air Force and one by the US Air Force around a single runway, originally built in WW2. None of these workers have permanent rights of residence. This UK Overseas Territory has no indigenous population and the UK Government instead classifies it as a “working island.” However, many have spent their entire careers there and feel a deep sense of pride and ownership in the place. Historically, the sale of fishery licenses has represented one of the only external sources of outside income the Ascension islanders could use to maintain and upgrade the island’s decaying school, hospital and essential services – since the British Government deems the workforce ineligible for overseas development funding and military spending has declined. At the height of the recent fishery, in 2011, fishing licences contributed over £1 million a year or 16 per cent of Ascension’s income – an unsustainable amount, but significant nonetheless.
Members of the Ascension Island Council – an elected body which advises the Administrator appointed by the UK Foreign Office – insisted that the costs of paying for a marine reserve potentially the size of Germany should not fall on the few taxpayers of the small island. While there were many views sympathetic to a marine reserve, the islanders understandably insisted that they needed to replace lost income. As time went on and it became clear that the British government’s commitment to conservation was unfunded and it was struggling to fund a reserve in even part of Ascension’s waters, the locals understandably proposed reopening the fishery.
This alarmed the Great British Oceans coalition, the coalition of six NGOs that had come together to campaign for more marine reserves around the overseas territories. In July last year, the Blue Marine Foundation decided, with the coalition’s support, to find a donor who could alter the equation. Blue turned to the US-based philanthropist Louis Bacon and his Bacon Foundation which undertook to fund the enforcement of a reserve that would stretch to 50 percent of Ascension’s waters for 18 months if the British government would pick up the bill after that. The island would be able to sell commercial fishing licences under much tighter rules in the other half of the EEZ. There would be observer coverage to ensure, among other things, that sharks were returned alive to the water. After six months of negotiations between Blue, the Bacon Foundation and the British and Ascension island governments, a patrol vessel was hired, half Ascension’s waters were closed from Jan 1, and the fishery reopened, but only in half the area where it had existed before.
It may look as if the job is done. In fact it is only half done. The conservation community has catalysed the enforcement of a closed area 234,291 km2 in size and a more responsible fishery. But it has yet to satisfy Ascension’s councillors’ concerns about financing. The conundrum is that the island still needs an income to support its crumbling infrastructure and the most obvious one is from selling fishing licences. Only two have been sold this year. Income is down due to the closure of the fishery which isn’t coming back in its previous form. This puts both the British and US governments – whether they realize it or not – under pressure to find new sources of income for Ascension to enable local councillors to support the designation of a reserve in 50 per cent of Ascension’s waters. There is no indigenous commercial fishery to placate, so it would theoretically be possible to close 100 per cent of Ascension’s waters as a reserve, truly a major contribution to the whole tropical Atlantic, if the right money were found.
You would think a marine reserve would bring in income from tourism and science, and it would were it not for the unique circumstances that exist on Ascension. There is a hangover from the island’s former and current military status that the British government owns all property and only short leases are given on shops and the island’s only hotel, so there is no incentive to invest in upgrading the accommodation. Worse, those who live on the island, 60 per cent of whom are from St Helena 600 miles away, do not have “right of abode” so there is no reason they might want to spend their money there. Worse still, access to the island is restricted to diplomatic and military flights because an agreement between the British and US governments to allow civilian aircraft to use the Wideawake airfield – named after the colony of terns of that name that live nearby – has lapsed. The US has raised legal and security issues about re-signing the Wideawake Agreement, an agreement dating back to the Cold War which controls access to the runway. The 1200 tourists a year that do visit arrive mainly on military flights from RAF Brize Norton near Oxford, England. Among those lucrative clients who now find it difficult to visit are princelings from Arabia who used to come in their private jets to go spear-fishing. Looking at the mysterious satellite-tracking masts and the lack of gates into the airbase one can readily understand why it suits US defence chiefs to leave Ascension just as it is.
Yet I suspect this is not how others in the US government would see it, for it is also the rather admirable policy of the current US Administration to promote marine conservation. John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, takes marine conservation seriously and he has organised three “Our Ocean” conferences so far, the third and last of which is this autumn. President Obama is responsible for a vast expansion of the US protected marine estate. It is unclear whether either are aware that the US military has such a key role in enabling the marine reserves to flourish on British Overseas Territories where the US has military bases (the other is on Diego Garcia, one of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean). On Ascension the US has a golden opportunity to help show how a globally-important marine reserve can pay for itself by allowing in a carefully monitored sprinkling of high-end tourism. Negotiations are under way to allow in one flight a month originating in Johannesburg when a new airport opens on nearby St Helena, but a more regular service opening up tourism to both these Atlantic islands and the Falklands beyond would be a more useful goal.
Undoubtedly the prime responsibility for making a success of a marine reserve around Ascension lies with the British government. The root of the problem facing the creation of a marine reserve is the UK’s sclerotic inability to get round to formulating a long-term vision for the island on top of the military one it has had for just over 200 years. Will it extend leases so private companies can invest, or will it allow the island to apply for development aid, which many believe its decaying facilities now require? How can it supplement its income by taxing tourists, charging recreational fishermen for their trophies and extracting taxes from the other users of the island?
One of these is the US Air Force which under an arrangement dating back to the 1950s, brings in all the provisions it needs but makes no financial contribution to the island’s economy. That favourable arrangement must be in question now the island’s population is no longer exclusively military and when its government provides a conservation purpose that benefits the whole Atlantic. It would be a small step, but a really significant one, for the US Administration to accept that inevitability and get some credit for doing so.
There’s a lot to fix if a marine reserve around Ascension (50 miles around the island and then everything south of 8 degrees south, like the bottom half of an orange) is to succeed. The facilities on Ascension, including the runway, are gently crumbling. Within a year or two, doing nothing will longer an option. New investment and a new settlement are both needed.
As so often the affairs of long time allies are jumbled up together. So I will refer to the wisdom of someone who could take a truly mid-Atlantic view of what should be done: Barbara Ward, a British-born friend of John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson and an adviser to Robert McNamara, when he was president of the World Bank. Ward is credited with inventing the term “sustainable development.” Her view was that the environment can only be protected by fostering the right kind of development. That was true then. It is true now.
Originally published April 26, 2016 on National Geographic Ocean Views