The waters around Pitcairn Island will become the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve.

The waters around the Pitcairn Islands will become the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve.

MJ Patterson/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

U.K. wants eyes in the sky to keep watch on its record marine reserve

The United Kingdom plans to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in South Pacific waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands—and they are counting on satellites to help police it. Yesterday’s announcement of the 834,334-square-kilometer reserve marks the latest move to create a mega–marine reserve, following similar moves by other nations.  

“This is a major development in marine conservation,” says Elliott Norse, chief scientist of the Marine Conservation Institute in Seattle, Washington. “Adding another really big, important, protected area to the world’s pathetically small list of big, imported protected areas—that’s a big thing.”

The announcement of the reserve, which will bar commercial fishing, mining, and other extractive uses, came in the U.K. government’s 2015 budget. It states that designation of the reserve “will be dependent upon reaching agreement with [nongovernmental organizations] on satellite monitoring” of reserve users, including fishing fleets, and on reaching deals with regional port authorities “to prevent landing of illegal catch.” The government also wants to identify “a practical naval method of enforcing” sea life protections “at a cost that can be accommodated within existing departmental expenditure limits.”

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the designation marks the first time any government has combined the creation of a fully protected marine reserve with a detailed plan for surveillance and enforcement using state-of-the-art technology. The Bertarelli Foundation in Gstaad, Switzerland, announced that it will help pay for real-time satellite monitoring of the reserve for 5 years, in collaboration with the Pew Foundation and a U.K.-based company, Satellite Applications Catapult.

The new reserve will begin 12 nautical miles from Pitcairn Islands’ shore, and extend out to the full 200-nautical-mile limit, encompassing 99% of the territory’s exclusive economic zone. The Pitcairn Islands’ roughly 50 inhabitants, descendants of the HMS Bounty’s mutineers, will be allowed to continue traditional subsistence fishing operations.

The reserve is roughly 3.5 times the size of the United Kingdom and is home to at least 1249 species of marine mammals, seabirds, and fish. The waters are also hold the 40 Mile Reef, one of the deepest well-developed coral reef communities known. The area is relatively untouched, conservationists say, and “there’s not a lot of places in the world’s oceans at this point that are still relatively pristine,” says Matt Rand, director of Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy project in Washington, D.C. “These places are places that need human protection if the life in them is to survive the hard times that we are headed for—the hard times that human activities are causing,” Norse says.

Even with today’s announcement, less than 1% of the world’s oceans are fully protected within reserves.