Coronavirus (Covid-19) Information

Bangor in the Indian Ocean

Marine biologists from Bangor University’s School of Ocean Sciences have recently returned from a science and conservation expedition to the British Indian Ocean Territory, currently the world’s largest Marine Reserve, located 7° south of the equator, below the Maldives.

The region is large at 640,000 km², remote and mostly uninhabited, and contains the best examples of coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, and some of the best in the world.

Dr John Turner, the Expedition Leader, explains: “The marine protected area is important because it serves as a reference or control site, indicating how tropical ecosystems function in the absence of direct human impacts, such as coastal development, effluent, and overfishing which degrade ecosystems such as coral reefs. Further, we can study how marine ecosystems can respond to changes in climate when protected from such degrading forces, which informs Government policy and management of these areas.”

The research is the final part of a 3 year project awarded to Bangor University from DEFRA’s Darwin Initiative: To Strengthen the World’s Largest Marine Protected Area, Chagos Archipelago. The Darwin Initiative funds research to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide.

Dr Turner led the international team of scientists from UK, Australia and America on the third of three expeditions to Chagos last month. The shallow reefs of Chagos are scattered in deep water over an area of 60,000 km² and therefore the researchers access them aboard the British Indian Ocean Territory’s patrol vessel, the ‘Pacific Marlin’.

Dr Turner said: “Once close to a study site, diving operations are run from 5 inflatable boats on seaward reefs or by venturing inside the lagoons of the atolls, and trying to land on the small islands. We revisit specific sites on each expedition to assess change, but also take every opportunity to explore new sites on submerged banks and patch reefs – we are still discovering what is there, having seen less than 2% of the area.”

Dr Ronan Roche, from the School of Ocean Sciences’ Centre for Applied Marine Science worked with Dr Turner in assessing the change in coral communities using underwater video surveys. Expedition science was divided into 7 subprojects, led by participants from different institutions: Coral reef community resilience (Bangor University); Long term monitoring coral cover and coral recruitment, and sea temperature monitoring (University of Warwick); Carbonate budget assessment (University of Exeter); nutrient interactions between islands and marine systems (James Cook University & Department of Parks and Wildlife, Australia); Coral disease (University of Hawaii); Coral reef cryptic marine fauna (University of Oxford); Monitoring seabirds, Coconut crab and invasive rat populations (Chagos Conservation Trust and Zoological Society of London). The project’s Outreach Programme provided a Darwin Bursary for a member of the UK Chagossian community to join expedition activities and experience scientific research and expedition.

About the research, Dr Turner said: “What is interesting is that we are seeing and measuring patterns of change in the coral reef communities in response to events such as warming sea temperatures, outbreaks of predatory Crown of Thorns starfish, and storms and possibly even earthquakes. We are monitoring recovery from coral bleaching and coral disease, and seeing birds change the islands on which they breed. All of the scientists work in other regions, such as the Caribbean, Gulf and Indo Pacific, and therefore we are able to compare Chagos with other parts of the world, and our observations indicate just how special Chagos is proving to be in terms of its rich biodiversity and resilience.”

The project is generating substantial scientific data to feed into the Conservation Management Plan of the Chagos Marine Protected Area, implemented by the British Indian Ocean Territory Government Section in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The aim is to ensure protection of biodiversity and resilience of reefs and associated ecosystems in response to global changes and possible human resettlement.

A colourful blog of the 2015 Darwin Initiative Science and Conservation Expedition can be found here.

Publication date: 2 June 2015