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Bangor Scientist to Strengthen the World’s Largest Marine Reserve

Expertise from Bangor University’s world renowned School of Ocean Science is to contribute towards monitoring and surveying the world’s largest marine reserve, which surrounds a string of tiny islands in the British Indian Ocean Territory of the Chagos Archipelago.

Two years ago, the UK Government declared the Chagos Archipelago a Strict Marine Reserve, meaning that flora and fauna cannot be removed, and their habitats cannot be modified. The Reserve covers over 250 million square miles, and is the largest Marine Reserve in the world to date.  It is the third of 6 large marine protected areas campaigned for by the Pew Environmental Group, to be known as Ocean Legacy Reserves.

The challenge now is how to best manage the Chagos Marine Reserve.   The Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA)’s Darwin Initiative have awarded a grant of £287,788 to Bangor University to strengthen the Chagos Marine Reserve by providing scientific knowledge for effective management, and to develop a strategy that engages the support of potential stakeholders through outreach, education and engagement.  Some of the world’s most pristine coral reefs occur around the Chagos Archipelago.  Nesting turtles, giant robber crabs and seabirds inhabit the islands, and towers of coral arise from the deep lagoons providing habitat for dense shoals of fish.  Sharks, rays and Spinner’s dolphins are frequent visitors to the atoll reefs, which descend into deep, unexplored waters containing sea mounts and deep sea plains.

Gigant ClamGiant ClamDr John Turner of Bangor’s School of Ocean Sciences will now lead a 3 year, £554,553 programme of research with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Zoological Society of London and Warwick University, largely funded by the UK Darwin Initiative with additional funds from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and conservation organisations.

Dr John Turner said: ‘the UK is ranked 13th by total coral reef area out of all nations, largely due to the Chagos, but public awareness of the near pristine biodiversity is poor. The British Indian Ocean Territory is located south of the Maldives and there are 5 coral atolls with 54 small islands exposed, and 12 submerged banks.  All islands are uninhabited except for Diego Garcia atoll, where there is a US naval facility.  The territory includes about 50% of the Indian Ocean’s most healthy coral reefs including the world’s largest atoll structure, and 60,000 km2 of shallow water habitats.  The Reserve’s waters are used by many migratory species such as whales, sharks, turtles and sea birds. Chagos harbours 76 threatened species (IUCN Red List) including Hawksbill turtle, Red foot booby, silky shark, Coconut crab, and Bigeye tuna, providing an internationally important refuge and reference site.

Spinner DolphinsSpinner DolphinsThe islands were inhabited from around 1700 to 1970 for coconut plantations, but have since been unoccupied, and bird and turtle populations have recovered to internationally significant population.  Rats and overgrown plantation limit recovery of all areas, and poaching of turtle, sharks, and sea cucumbers remains a concern.  However by far the greatest threats are from commercial fishing, island development and impacts from climate change such as increased sea temperature, sea level rise, ocean acidification and reef erosion. In a recently published paper in the journal, Aquatic Conservation, 42 scientists explain the value of the Chagos Marine Reserve both as a refuge and as a reference site for climate impact research, and emphasise the urgency in establishing a baseline against which to measure change and limit future impact.

Dr Turner, one of the paper’s authors, explains that the long-term benefits will be the protection of biodiversity across a range of ecosystems from deep sea to islands, and range of and the scale of the Reserve suggests that benefits will be significant at an ocean scale, and communities in some of the poorest countries around the Indian Ocean may benefit from the preservation of a genetically-balanced stock of species which may overspill juveniles and adults to unprotected regions.’

Groups representing the people who once occupied the islands are supportive of the Reserve provided it does not prejudice their right of return at some stage. The possibility of future human settlement is acknowledged, highlighting the need for baseline information to manage human impact on biodiversity and productivity. The Darwin Project involves a programme of outreach, education and training about preservation and rehabilitation of the islands and their resources.  Awareness of the rich biodiversity of the UK, will be raised both nationally and internationally, demonstrating how large Ocean Legacy Reserves can protect ecosystems and serve as important global reference sites to help understand environmental change.

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Publication date: 7 March 2012