Pressure mounting on UK to create world’s largest marine reserve

Pressure is mounting on the UK government and opposition parties to commit to creating at least one massive marine reserve in the Pacific or Atlantic to protect rare and threatened whales, sharks, fish and corals ahead of the general election. Marine reserves are a type of marine protected area (MPA) where human activities such as fishing and development are prohibited by law for conservation purposes. Often referred to as ‘no take’ MPAs, marine reserves are fully and permanently protected from activities that remove animals or plants, or that alter habitats, except as needed for scientific monitoring. There are around 5000 MPAs designated around the world, however they currently represent only 0.8% of the world’s 361 million km2 of ocean, 2.0% of the 147 million km2 of ocean under national jurisdiction and of the global marine area that is protected, just under 10% is a marine reserve1.

The Marine Reserves Coalition, consisting of over 100 conservation groups, prominent academics and film and TV celebrities have called on the Foreign Office to declare full protection zones around the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific ocean, as well as Ascension Island and the South Sandwich Islands in the Atlantic, all of which are governed as part of the British Overseas Territory. The three proposed reserves would together protect around 1.8 million kmof ocean and more than double the size of the world’s existing MPAs 3. It is understood that if these marine reserves were to be created, all commercial fishing around the inhabited islands would be prohibited (with indigenous fishing being allowed to continue up to 18 miles offshore).

In UK waters, there are currently 108 Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) with marine components, 108 Special Protection Areas (SPAs) with marine components, 28 Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs) and 30 Nature Conservation Marine Protected Areas (NCMPAs). At this time there are only three small ‘no-take’ areas, covering less than 0.01% of the UK’s seas; Lundy off the North Devon coast, Lamlash Bay on the Isle of Arran coast in Scotland and Flamborough Head off the North Yorkshire coast2.

One of the primary concerns regarding the preservation of marine reserves is illegal fishing. Illegal fishing is strictly prohibited in these protected areas but many countries are not able to enforce the laws that are supposed to prevent it. The biggest problems facing these countries trying to enforce offshore marine reserves is their distance from land and the difficulty and cost of patrolling large tracts of ocean.

However, conservationists and some scientific organisations state satellite monitoring and modern technology has now precluded the need for boats to patrol the vast areas and has dramatically reduced costs. Pioneering satellite technology designed and developed in the UK by The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Satellite Applications Catapult, and the UK Government, would allow analysts to identify and monitor illegal fishing practices in marine reserves, as well as alert them to vessels acting suspiciously. Additionally, in a study conducted last November, researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies (Coral CoE) at James Cook University claim to have found a way to predict illegal fishing activities to help authorities better protect marine reserves4. The team of scientists examined five years’ worth of data collected from the World Heritage-listed Cocos Island National Park, a unique marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean about 500 kilometres off the west coast of Costa Rica. From the records they were able identify illegal fishing patterns and predict both when and where illegal fishing was likely to happen. They found that illegal fishing was concentrated in a few ‘hotspots’ and increased significantly during specific lunar phases of some months. Professor Bob Pressey, from Coral CoE, says authorities could use this knowledge to match patrols to the time and place when illegal fishers are most likely to be in action.

“Using a targeted approach helps authorities catch and deter illegal fishers, while saving money on patrols,” Professor Pressey says“Rather than just hoping you can catch illegal fishers effectively by random patrols, we have used previous patrols to look for patterns which tell us when and where people fish illegally,”

In creating the three proposed UK marine reserves, initial government estimates suggested it might cost £4m a year to monitor and enforce an MPA around Ascension or Pitcairn, however Charles Clover, chair of the Blue Foundation and a spokesman for the coalition says this has been reduced to £400,000 a year. He continues:

“Enforcing and monitoring these marine areas would be cost effective. The Foreign Office is at a crossroads in dealing with overseas territories. It needs to recognise that we must deal with overfishing. We now have the technological ability to do this without boats and it is much cheaper. As it is, these areas are being plundered and are not being monitored at all, even though they contain 94% of all the UK’s biodiversity,”

Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Gillian Anderson, Julie Christie and Helena Bonham-Carter are among the celebrities who have also signed a statement declaring that the creation of the reserves would make a “globally significant contribution to ocean conservation leaving a historic legacy for people and wildlife at very little cost.”

With all of it’s 14 Overseas Territories, the UK is responsible for the fifth largest area of ocean in the world, measuring 6.8 million square kilometres, over twice the size of India, and nearly 30 times the size of the UK itself. These waters are amongst the most diverse on earth, with the Overseas Territories housing 94% of the UK’s unique biodiversity. Increasing pressure is mounting on the British government to meet the globally agreed target of protecting 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020. Renowned marine biologist Dr Sylvia Earle of the Mission Blue Foundation says:

“We have a long way to go to reach our global pledge of protecting 10% of the world’s ocean by 2020 so action needs to be taken now to protect these precious ecosystems. By protecting its overseas territories, the UK has the potential to create the largest marine reserve in the world and make a significant contribution to this global target.”

A statement by the Foreign Office regarding the creation of the marine reserves says:

“No decisions have been taken about designating marine protected areas around Pitcairn or Ascension but we are working with both territory governments and other stakeholders to determine the feasibility of establishing MPA in these territories. The government supports marine protected areas where they are scientifically justifiable and where an effective monitoring and enforcement regime can be established and funded,”.

To view all current MPAs in UK waters, see Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s website:

– JK

Head Photo Source: Satellite image of Ascension Island –


1. Protect Planet Ocean:

2. Joint Nature Conservation Committee


4. Arias, Adrian, Pressey, Robert L., Jones, Rhondda E., Alvarez-Romero, Jorge G., and Cinner, Joshua E (2014) Optimizing enforcement and compliance in offshore marine protected areas: a case study from Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Oryx.

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