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Bangor University’s part in the world’s largest Marine Reserve

Bangor University is playing a significant role in the management of the world’s largest marine reserve.

Lying within UK overseas territorial waters around the Chargos Island chain, and covering an area of the Indian Ocean, the size of France, Chagos Marine Reserve boasts near pristine waters and the healthiest coral reefs found anywhere on the planet, which in turn, support a rich variety of marine life.

Though the area has been uninhabited for nearing 60 years, the reserve has been in existence for only five years, but is already internationally recognised as a flagship for marine conservation. The reserve includes  some 60,000 km2 of  shallow seas, banks and coral atolls, a deeper oceanic ‘plain’ which has 86 ‘seamounts’ of greater than 1000 m rising from the ocean floor.  The area contains significant populations of endangered species including sharks, turtles and seabirds.

Dr John Turner of Bangor University has been co-leading a valuable UK research project which provides the information to support decisions made by the UK Government and other bodies in managing the world’s largest marine reserve.  

From his base at the University’s School of Ocean Sciences, Dr John Turner works with scientists at the University of Warwick and the Zoological Society of London, assisted by an international team including scientists from USA, Australia and Africa. Dr Turner has over 30 years of expertise in surveying and assessing the health of reef systems and the life supported by them, from the algae living inside the corals to the apex predators visiting the reefs.

During their research expeditions to this remote region, the team has a rare opportunity to assess a naturally functioning ecosystem in the absence of human impact, and to understand how resilient ecosystems are capable of responding to climate changes such as ocean warming, sea level rise and coastal erosion

Dr Turner explains that the Marine Reserve serves as a global reference site:

“It provides a benchmark for reversing damaged ecosystems elsewhere,” he says. “It also serves as a refuge for species that reseed degraded parts of an ocean on which millions of people depend.

“We have undertaken three expeditions over the last three years, and others less frequently in preceding years. Our teams conduct surveys underwater, which take up to a year to plan, because we need to be totally self-sufficient in the field, working from the territory’s patrol ship. It can then take up to a year to produce the reports from the data collected.”

“When you approach an atoll, the first thing you’re aware of are the birds, as boobies, frigate birds and terns fly from the islands to inspect the ship.  The area contains the most intact reef systems in the Indian Ocean, and some of the best reefs in the world.  When I first put my head under to survey them, I then never cease to be amazed at the wealth of life that a healthy, unfished reef can support, from crabs living in association with corals, to large Grouper accompanied by cleaner fish and shrimps

‘Few people get the opportunity to see fully functioning coral reefs, for what many see are actually overexploited and degraded habitats, rather like studying a deforested landscape rather than the forest!    What we’re seeing is that these undisturbed coral reefs have the capacity to recover from events such as coral bleaching episodes caused by warming waters. For example, coral reefs in both Chagos and the Seychelles were equally affected, but while the Chagos reefs had recuperated by 2012, reefs in the Seychelles have still not fully recovered.”

The team also work with Chagossian communities now living in the UK and Mauritius to involve them in conservation, and raise awareness of the importance of very large marine reserves in protecting ocean wealth for future generations.

The research, which has so far focussed around the reef systems and shallower waters, was funded by the UK government’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs’ Darwin Initiative, and provided the information for the management of the world’s largest ‘no-take’ marine reserve. While this major research project has come to an end, the team now await the results of another major bid for funding to continue their current surveys and extend their work to include monitoring of the deeper oceanic waters.

The won the Best Impact on Public Policy and/or Public Services in the University’s third annual Impact and Innovation Awards 2015.

Publication date: 18 December 2015