The UKOT Blue Belt programme

In 2016, the UK Government made a declaration, in partnership with seven of its Overseas territories (UKOTs), to establish enhanced protection and management of four million square kilometres of marine ecosystems. This programme, which will run for three and a half years up until March 2020, involves:

  • Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha
  • British Indian Ocean Territory
  • Pitcairn Islands
  • South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands
  • British Antarctic Territory

Several of these UKOTs have already developed some form of marine protection strategy (e.g. Pitcairn’s 834,000 km2 no take MPA or the South Georgia 1,240,000 km2 sustainable use MPA) so the programme is split between revising and improving existing strategies and developing new ones. Naturally, this biases the work towards UKOTs where historic management has been more limited and Tristan da Cunha and St Helena have been particular areas of focus for the Blue Belt partners. The Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) are leading on the delivery of this work, on behalf of the Foreign Office and Defra, in close partnership with UKOT governments together with several scientific partners: British Antarctic Survey; RSPB; UKHO; NERC; Plymouth University and others.

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RRS Discovery in front of Tristan Island

This programme is also quite practically focussed. In addition to the scientific opportunities, there has also been a great deal of capacity and infrastructural development with the OTs. For instance, St Helena are set to have a new marine laboratory installed, and Tristan da Cunha will have its patrol vessel fully refurbished. Fisheries observer and tagging programmes have been developed and supported, in a bid to collect the requisite data that will inform the longer-term management.

In Tristan da Cunha, the most remote permanently inhabited place on the planet, the focus has been on seamounts to the south and south-east of Tristan island, where there are fisheries for several demersal species, particularly bluenose warehou. In addition to two dedicated longline surveys, there has also been two research cruises (on JCR in 2018, and Discovery in 2019) to Tristan, to collect vital information on the habitats and productivity of these areas. This evidence, together with the development of the first assessment for this stock, will provide Tristan da Cunha Government with evidence and options for considering the technical aspects of the marine protection strategy commitment made in 2016.

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Obese dragonfish (found in the stomach of a bluenose warehou)

St Helena work has also focussed upon seamounts, but with a view to improving the knowledge base of the habitats and ecology of yellowfin and bigeye tuna, which comprise the main fishery for St Helenians. In addition, there are several programmes underway that relate to establishing baselines for water quality, aggregate extraction and the sustainability of local, inshore fisheries for lobster and grouper.

In British Indian Ocean Territory and Pitcairn, where large, no take zones have already been established, much of the work is concentrated on addressing residual, largely inshore, issues such as cruise ship anchoring points around Pitcairn Island. Ascension Island Government has also very recently taken the decision to implement a no take zone throughout its EEZ, with a small provision for inshore and sports fishing remaining.

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Yellow-nosed albatross

Enforcement and compliance monitoring in these remote areas remains a key challenge, particularly with reference to policing fishing activity. The MMO have been leading on ways to meet this challenge and are continuing to explore a range of options, such as remote sensing, as well as providing considerable support for local fisheries observers and legislators with regards training and licensing.

Several of the UKOTs involved will require longer-term support, and all of the strategies are expected to be subject to periodic review, but their attitudes towards conservation and sustainability have been laudable and they are undoubtedly punching well above their weight in terms of meeting global targets such as the UN sustainable development goals.

Blog post written by James Bell, Fisheries and Ecosystems Scientist at Cefas. For more information see @JamesBellOcean on twitter

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