Today (1 August) marks Marine Protected Areas (MPA) Day, celebrating the important role protected areas play in marine conservation, for people, and for marine life. Andy Schofield from the RSPB’s UK Overseas Territories team explores some of the amazing Marine Protected Areas in the UK Overseas Territories he’s worked alongside for almost a decade.

My job takes me to some of the most unbelievable and biodiverse-rich places to see things that many people would never ordinarily get to see! I do it because of the impressive global scale of impact I get to be involved in and because of the remarkable people that I work with across the communities and Governments.

Golden yellow sky with the sun just hiding behind the silhouette of the island of Tristan da Cunha, the sea is in the foreground and a seabird is flying past the island.

My job takes me to some of the most unbelievable and biodiverse-rich places in the world – such as Tristan da Cunha, whose Marine Protection Zone (highly protected) is by far the largest fully protected area in the Atlantic Ocean and nearly three times the size of the UK. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

What is a Marine Protected Area?
A Marine Protected Area, or MPA, is a defined space in the ocean that is managed to protect or restore marine species, habitats and ecosystems from potential damage by human activities such as over-fishing or mining.

Why are Marine Protected Areas important?
Marine Protected Areas benefit people, nature and the economy in several ways.
• Protected areas are safe, healthy places for fish and marine life to breed and thrive.
• The healthy waters bring jobs such as sustainable fishing as a community resource, tourism and roles in marine conservation and management.
• Research into the environments can lead to discoveries new to science that help us better understand our underwater world.
• Many people have a strong wellbeing, spiritual and cultural connection with the ocean including age-old fishing practices.

Creating Marine Protected Areas in the UK Overseas Territories
One of the ambitious outcomes from the United Nations (UN) Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), 15th Conference of the Parties to the convention (COP15) is to protect 30% of the world’s oceans in fully or highly protected areas by 2030. According to the MPA Atlas, 8.2% of the global ocean is protected, only 3% is fully or highly protected.

Island communities, local Governments, and partners (including the RSPB) have been working alongside the UK Government through the Blue Belt Programme to create and support vast MPAs in our UK Overseas Territories including those in the South Atlantic (St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands) and Pacific Ocean (Pitcairn).

Collectively, the UK Overseas Territories mentioned in this blog account for around 3 million km2 of which 2.3 million are highly or fully protected waters, that’s covering an area almost ten times the size of the UK!

Marine protection in the South Pacific Ocean - Pitcairn
In 2016, the community of the tiny island of Pitcairn designated 99% of the waters that surround the group of islands of Pitcairn, Henderson, Oeno and Ducie as a Marine Protection Area (highly protected). Covering an area of 830,000 km2 this makes it the largest single, continuous ocean highly protected MPA in the world!

The pristine marine environment is home to miles of rare deep-water corals and well-developed shallow coral reefs that teem with an enormous variety of fish species from colourful Emperor Angel Fish to one of the highest densities of sharks recorded anywhere on earth, along with turtles, Humpback Whales and their calves and several rare and endangered bird species. The islands of Oeno and Ducie hold over 95% of the global population of Murphy’s Petrel and Henderson Island is currently the only known breeding site in the world for the endemic Henderson Petrel.

A Humpback Whale breaching out of the water.

Humpback Whales and their calves can be found in the Marine Protection Area (highly protected) of Pitcairn. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

Marine Protection in the South Atlantic
In 2012, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, designated a 307,487 km2 Marine Protected Area, safeguarding spawning fish and foraging areas for Gentoo Penguins, cormorants, petrels, and prions. There are unexplored, deep-water coral, seamounts, deep trenches, and a large hydrothermal and tectonic area along with cold Antarctic Krill rich currents which makes this region incredibly biodiverse.

A Gentoo Penguin with black and white plumage and an orange and black beak stands hunkered down on a sandy beach.

In 2012, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, designated a 307,487 km2 Marine Protected Area, safeguarding spawning fish and foraging areas for species including the Gentoo Penguin. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

In 2016, St Helena designated the 200 nautical miles that surround the island as a Category VI (Sustainable Use) Marine Protected Area conserving their marine life and cultural traditions for future generations. It’s home to the endangered Whale Shark - the largest fish in the world which can reach the size of a double decker bus!

Because of its position near the equator the waters around St Helena are what I call the ‘Big Blue’ where the waters are so deep and vast that they are a blue that I see nowhere else in the world other than in Tropical Oceans. This means that they can appear void of life for long periods but can then erupt into a melee of whale species, Pantropical Spotted Dolphins and pelagic fish such as Barracuda and Tuna as a shoal of the magical Flying Fish are discovered.

A blue and silver Flying Fish over blue ocean waves.

Seeing Flying Fish erupt out of the ocean is a real spectacle. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

In 2019, Ascension Island designated the entirety of its Exclusive Economic Zone, 445,000km2, as a Marine Protected Area (highly protected), where all large-scale commercial fishing is prohibited and no fishing of any kind other than licenced research fishing will be permitted beyond 12 nautical miles of the island or extraction is permitted. It’s home to over half a million breeding seabirds including the endemic Ascension Island Frigatebird and some of the largest colonies of Sooty Terns found anywhere on earth. Its pristine volcanic sandy beaches support the second largest population of nesting Green Turtles in the Atlantic Ocean and in turn are therefore important waters for one of their only predators - the fearsome yet enigmatic Tiger Shark.

A dark brown Ascension Island Frigatebird with blue eye ring and pale grey beak sits in the foreground, while a fluffy white chick and other adults can be just made out in the background.

Ascension Island is home to the Ascension Island Frigatebird. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

In 2020, Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited island community of less than 250 residents made the momentous announcement that they would designate 91% of their waters, a total of 690,000km2, as a Marine Protection Zone (highly protected), this is by far the largest fully protected area in the Atlantic Ocean and nearly three times the size of the UK. 

A Great Shearwater with brown head, whitish belly and long outstretched mottled brown wings, flies low over the waves.

Tristan da Cunha supports the world’s breeding population of Great Shearwaters. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

It’s home to tens of millions of breeding seabirds from the critically endangered and endemic Tristan Albatross, one of the largest seabirds in the world to the Grey Backed Storm Petrel which is one of the smallest! It’s also home to globally important populations of the stunning, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, and the world’s breeding population of more than eight million Great Shearwaters. Their vast pristine waters are also the world’s first known Blue Shark nursery and are home to the rare and little-known Shepherds Beaked Whale and the fastest fish on earth, the Shortfin Mako Shark which when pursuing its favourite prey of Tuna can reach 45 mph! 

An Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross flies low over the waves. It has a white body, dark grey/black wings, a dark eye and beak with a yellow/orange stripe all the way down the beak from forehead to tip.

Tristan da Cunha is home to globally important populations of the Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. © Andy Schofield/RSPB.

What’s next for Marine Protected Areas?
It is beyond commendable what these small islands have undertaken to protect vast areas of ocean resulting in global conservation benefits.

These small communities have demonstrated to the rest of the world how to enhance protection of environments for the benefit of a myriad of species and for mankind.

Now that there are some huge, highly valuable MPAs in place, protecting vast swaths of biodiversity, it’s about managing them and ensuring they are robust and still delivering for the communities and for the wildlife for generations to come. For example, the RSPB, Tristan Government and Blue Nature Alliance are supporting the Tristan da Cunha community with their Marine Protection Zone (MPZ) through the Atlantic Guardians project - using science, research, knowledge exchange and community outreach to build a strong and sustainable future for the Marine Protection Zone.

National Geographic Pristine Seas have been a huge player in inspiring and the creation of MPAs throughout the world. They have carried out 36 expeditions of which 26 have since been protected including Tristan, Ascension, and Pitcairn. The National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition to Tristan in partnership with the RSPB and the Tristan community was vital in finding much of the discoveries and science that underpinned the designation. Over the next five years they’re planning a bold and exciting ocean conservation effort—The Global Expedition. They will be travelling through the Pacific Ocean to help inspire the establishment of marine protected areas in the places that would deliver the most benefits—to local communities, fishers, the climate and ocean life.

Meanwhile conservation organisations are working on ways to connect and broaden MPAs including through protecting the High Seas, the waters beyond territories and country authority. There is scope to bring country governments together to propose protection in the High Seas, especially where there is scientific evidence highlighting the value of the area for marine life. For example, seabird tracking in Tristan’s waters demonstrates how cross-country ocean protection is required. Birds don’t recognise borders – albatross wander the oceans and other seabirds take on colossal migrations spanning vast oceans.

For me, one of the next steps will be to work alongside the Tristan community to continue to share their Marine Protection Zone journey. I’ll be supporting them to showcase their conservation achievements at the 7th International Albatross and Petrel Conference in Mexico next year with aspirations to get countries talking about an even bigger, connected South Atlantic MPA for the future!

Aerial view of a golden sandy beach with waves breaking on the shore.

99% of the waters that surround the group of islands of Pitcairn, Henderson, Oeno and Ducie are designated as a Marine Protection Area (highly protected). © Andy Schofield/RSPB. 

To discover more about Andy’s work in the UKOTs, follow @andyschofield_rspb_ukots on Instagram.

Continue reading
Travelling the four UK seas in the name of ocean conservation
Marine conservation on a global scale – the International Marine Protected Areas Congress
Meet the world’s most remote Marine Protection Zone Officer

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