Ascension Island in the south Atlantic will soon have an enormous marine protected area (MPA) of 90,460 square miles — nearly the size of the U.K. The British government made the announcement regarding its overseas territory over the weekend, and formal designation could come as early as next year, following more data collection and analysis.
Ascension Island has remarkable biodiversity in its waters, including one of the world’s largest green turtle populations, some of the biggest marlin, a large colony of tropical seabirds and a unique frigate bird. With MPA status, fishing will be banned in over half of the island’s exclusive territorial waters. The Island’s government will monitor the reserve using satellites and patrol boats, and it will require fishing vessels to use de-hookers and dip nets to free any sharks, turtles, and seabirds that are caught by accident.
However, the tuna industry (mostly Taiwanese longline vessels) will be allowed in the unprotected remainder of Ascension Island’s waters, albeit in a tightly regulated fashion. Because London does not provide much funding, the Island’s government depends on revenue from issuing tuna fishing licenses, and thus it couldn’t ban fishing entirely. Tuna is very lucrative — in fact, a single large one was sold for $118,000 in Japan on Monday. (According to A.P., Japanese eat about 80% of all bluefin tuna caught worldwide, and stocks of all three bluefin species — the Pacific, Southern and Atlantic — have fallen over the past 15 years amid overfishing.)
But London’s stinginess is the default rather than the exception; in fact, the MPA is largely thanks to a $440,000 grant from the Bacon Foundation. The charity’s money will cover the costs of enforcement over the coming fishing season and will contribute to surveillance, scientific research, and management for the next 18 months.
Globally, about 1 out of every 5 fish is caught illegally. But the combination of improved monitoring technology through satellites and big data, along with the creation of huge new marine conservation areas means that the proportion of illegally-caught fish should drop in the coming years. Last year, enormous marine reserves were designated in Palau, Easter Island, Pitcairn Island, and New Zealand’s Kermadec islands. The Ascension Island reserve brings the total proportion of the world’s oceans protected from fishing to 2%. That is a huge figure in absolute terms, but still a far cry from what is needed in the face of global overfishing and many critically-endangered stocks. In 2002, the World Summit on Sustainable Development and the Convention on Biological Diversity committed countries to protecting 10% of the oceans from fishing by 2012.
So the Ascension Island MPA is a major step forward, but continued vigilance for enforcement will be needed. And many more such marine reserves should be created in other biodiversity hotspots, before it’s too late.