On 1 April, the UK Government announced its designation of a marine protected area around the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean, also known as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The 636,600-km2 MPA, which comprises the archipelago’s Exclusive Economic Zone and territorial waters, has been touted as the largest MPA in the world.*

However, despite international news reports that the entire MPA will be a giant no-take zone, the degree to which fishing will be restricted at the site remains unclear. At the time of designation, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated the MPA “will include” a no-take marine reserve where commercial fishing is off-limits, but officials would not confirm how much of the MPA the no-take zone will comprise. A spokesperson for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) would say only that the BIOT territorial administration “has been tasked with taking the establishment of an MPA forward in order that this is achieved in a realistic, sustainable, and affordable way.”

Change in UK government could become factor

The Chagos MPA designation was criticized by many members of Parliament, citing concern for the rights of Chagossian islanders who are fighting in court for the right to return to the archipelago. The UK forcibly removed the islanders from Chagos in the late 1960s in favor of building a UK/US joint military base there (MPA News 11:5). The displaced islanders currently live in Mauritius, Seychelles, and the UK. The concern of supporters is that any ban on fishing in Chagos would restrict any returning islanders from catching fish for food or livelihood.

Recent changes in the UK government could influence the management of Chagos. Following the country’s general election on 6 May, the previously ruling Labour Party stepped down and the opposition Conservative Party and Liberal Democrat Party formed a coalition government. Senior Conservative leaders have indicated a willingness to consider allowing Chagossians to return to the islands, and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg outspokenly favors the idea (see www.chagossupport.org.uk). If Chagossians do return, the move will increase pressure to allow some amount of fishing in the MPA.

The FCO conducted a public consultation from November 2009 to March 2010 to solicit input on the designation idea, and received more than 250,000 responses. A large majority of respondents favored creating a no-take zone across the entire area (to view the consultation report, go to http://bit.ly/aRQ2LN). IUCN submitted a letter to the FCO in support of full no-take status, saying the islands’ extremely low direct impacts of human activities have created “unrivaled ecosystem health” and that its reefs are “the healthiest, most resilient coral reefs in the world.”

For the time being, the Chagos MPA will be patrolled by a single vessel – the Pacific Marlin, operated by a private contractor (MRAG Ltd.). To this point, the vessel has been responsible for monitoring commercial fishing in BIOT waters for skipjack and yellowfin tuna.

* Which MPA is largest depends on one’s interpretation of the term “marine protected area” (MPA News 8:2 and 8:3). Although the Chagos MPA may be the largest area that fits the archetype of an MPA, there are marine areas under various forms of management that are bigger. These include, for example, the 35 million-km2 marine area managed under the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Living Marine Resources (CCAMLR).