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Massive protected area around ‘Atlantic Galapagos’ one step closer to becoming reality

  • Bringing the protection of the “Atlantic Galapagos” one step closer to becoming a reality, the Governor of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, Philip Rushbrook, designated a large-sale Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the waters around Ascension Island last month.
  • The MPA will cover the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Ascension Island, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. That means that an area of more than 440,000 square kilometers or 170,000 square miles will be included in the Ascension Island MPA, making it one of the largest in the world.
  • While legislation and a management plan won’t be finalized until long-term funding has been secured for the MPA, it has been proposed that commercial fishing and mineral extraction be prohibited altogether within the waters around Ascension Island, which has been described as a “miniature Galapagos Islands” because of its rich biodiversity.

Bringing the protection of the “Atlantic Galapagos” one step closer to becoming a reality, the Governor of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha, Philip Rushbrook, designated a large-sale Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the waters around Ascension Island last month.

The MPA will cover the entire Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of Ascension Island, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic. That means that an area of more than 440,000 square kilometers or 170,000 square miles will be included in the Ascension Island MPA, making it one of the largest in the world.

While legislation and a management plan won’t be finalized until long-term funding has been secured for the MPA, it has been proposed that commercial fishing and mineral extraction be prohibited altogether within the waters around Ascension Island, which has been described as a “miniature Galapagos Islands” because of its rich biodiversity. Ascension Island and its territorial waters provide important habitat for several key species of endemic fish, green turtles, land crabs, seabirds, sharks, and tuna, among other wildlife species. The island’s EEZ also includes extensive seamounts, underwater mountains that teem with life.

The designation of the MPA was made at the recommendation of the Ascension Island Council, which said in a statement: “The designation of such a large-scale Marine Protected Area will ensure that the near pristine marine environment around Ascension Island will be protected for future generations. We now eagerly await appropriate funding from the UK Government to support the ongoing future management costs of the MPA.”

Comfortless Cove on Ascension Island. Photo by Ben Tullis, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

That funding seems all but assured, as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, while attending the G7 Summit held last month, pledged £7 million to extend the Blue Belt initiative, which was launched in 2016 and has already led to the UK and its Overseas Territories establishing MPAs in more than half of British waters.

Once the UK commits to funding the Ascension Island MPA, it will become the Atlantic Ocean’s largest fully protected marine reserve, according to Enric Sala, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. Sala also leads NatGeo’s Pristine Seas team, which took part in a two-month scientific expedition in 2017 to explore the ecosystems surrounding Ascension Island.

“Our team conducted 32 surveys of seabirds and flying fish, deployed 18 drop cams to document the sea life living in the deepest parts of the region’s ocean floor, mapped 277 square kilometers of seamounts, and found seven different species of shark — including the rarely spotted sixgill shark. Ascension is an oasis of abundance surrounded by an ocean of overexploitation,” Sala reported in a blog post for NatGeo.

He added that the new MPA will be monitored via satellite surveillance, which has already been successfully tested.

“Protecting marine environments like the seamounts of Ascension Island is critical to safeguarding a future for our planet,” Sala wrote. “Right now, just 5 percent of our ocean is in implemented protected areas, but less than 3 percent is off-limits to commercial fishing and other destructive practices that are responsible for the loss of 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean over the past 70 years.”

Atlantic sooty terns (Onychoprion fuscatus) at Mars Bay Breeding Grounds, Ascension Island. Photo by Drew Avery, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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