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Government Creates Marine Sanctuary Three Times the Size of the UK

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If you’ve never heard of Tristan da Cunha, you’re not alone. Cast adrift in the South Atlantic; this lonely island is home to a meagre 240 people. Travelling there can take days, if not weeks – Cape Town, South Africa is 1,511 miles away. But despite its small size, Tristan da Cunha is making big waves.

This month, the UK government designated 90% of the waters surrounding Tristan da Cunha as a marine protected area (MPA). That’s a remarkable 265,000 square miles – three times larger than the UK! It comes as the latest piece in the Blue Belt jigsaw.

Involving more than 4.3 million square kilometres of ocean, the Blue Belt is the world’s largest collection of marine protected areas. Though the UK is an island, the vast swathe of its oceanic property centres on the 14 overseas territories. These are the rocky scraps of the British Empire, scattered throughout the world’s oceans.

However, the UK government has also been focusing on waters close to home. Last, year 41 marine conservation zones were created, encompassing an area nearly twice the size of England. By taking such momentous action, the UK hopes to meet the UN target of protecting 30% of global oceans.

But such marine reserves have received stern criticism, being lampooned as empty gestures. In the EU, 59% of marine protected areas are still commercially trawled, many at rates higher than non-protected areas. As Alex Taylor, head of marine policy at WWF said: “The UK is nearing 30% coverage of its waters protected, but these areas are poorly monitored, and we have little evidence that wildlife is benefiting.”

Such poor management close to home raises serious questions about an island as remote as Tristan da Cunha. Already there are numerous protections of both terrestrial and marine wildlife, including two wetland habitats of international importance. Furthermore, aside from a small lobster industry, the island boasts no significant threat to marine biodiversity.

Instead, Tristan da Cunha may be a subterfuge: an oceanic fog hiding greedier intentions. Something smells fishy.

Designating the waters around Tristan is a significant boost to the UK’s commitment to the UN target. But it also attracts attention away from other islands, as the UK scrapes over the 30% coverage line. The recent goal of phasing out UK Treasury support for distant UK Overseas Territories has led to an emphasis on developing the international tourism industry. In particular, on St Helena: the nearest island in the area, which is building an airport and luxury golf and hotel complex.

Wealthy resorts often have an appetite for exotic fish. Tourism also has a reputation for increasing poaching and other environmental crimes. Therefore, despite overtures to environmental protection, there is a likelihood of further marine system damage. Actions speak louder than words.

If the UK government is serious about the Blue Belt Programme; if it believes Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s proclamation that the Blue Belt is a bulwark against global warming, plastic pollution, and marine devastation, then it needs to get serious. No longer can action be focused on scraps of rock or creating conservation zones without any bite. Actions must have an impact; they must make a difference. Implementing more no-take zones in UK waters and targeting booming tourist hotspots would be a start. Otherwise, our seas will further empty, and the waters risk becoming still forevermore.