Reflections on the 5th anniversary of the Chagos marine reserve

April 01, 2015


I can only remark on how similar it seems, this spring, to five years ago.  Then, the Foreign Secretary had announced, on April 1, the day before the general election was called, the creation of the world’s largest continuous marine reserve in the Chagos archipelago.  The Friday before that, March 27, the Blue Marine Foundation had let the Foreign Office know that it had found a funder, the Bertarelli Foundation, who would cover the costs of enforcement of a reserve for five years.  We told the government we had to wait a week for a signed document but we had been assured the money was there.  We have never known, and we will probably never know, whether the reassurance that money was coming clinched the deal for the Foreign Secretary, who had said he was minded to designate provided it was at no cost to the Treasury, but indications from government sources then and since were that it took the decision out of the “too difficult” box.  David Miliband decided to designate, but it took until September for the succeeding coalition government to ratify the decision.

Five years later we are in an uncomfortably similar position.  The coalition government decided to proceed with the designation of another massive marine reserve around Pitcairn in the Pacific, by placing a one-paragraph announcement in the Budget.  But no word escaped a minister’s lips on the matter publicly before the general election was called and there is much work to do to convince Foreign Office officials of the practicality of enforcement through remote sensing, naval vessels and regional fisheries management regimes, let alone the next government, whoever that may be.  Again, private money has been critical in getting a cash-strapped government to commit.  The Pew Charitable Trusts has committed to paying for remote enforcement of Pitcairn for three years, with support again from the Bertarelli Foundation.

A couple of observations: it was always going to be difficult to get governments to commit to marine conservation on an oceanic scale because until 30 years or so ago it was not a call on any Treasury anywhere.  It was always going to be what accountants would call “above the line,” additional expense.  Whatever you like to call them, “Serengetis of the sea,” marine national parks, monuments, or just reserves are a whole new area of human endeavour, prompted by a growing perception that many of our marine ecosystems have been irreversibly altered by fishing pressure and that we need to preserve some places on Earth where the web of life is undamaged. Once private funders have eased the political difficulty, it is one that taxpayers will have to take on, unless novel funding methods can be found.  It is the case of high seas reserves – which have been a possibility after progress at the UN on amending the law of the sea – it is unclear even which taxpayers should be asked to pay.  All of which makes it the more important that we find smart new ways of policing areas of ocean cost-effectively, if necessary by changing the law to clamp down on illegal fishing vessels, as the world needs a whole lot more big marine reserves to protect places that have not yet been ravaged by over-fishing, pollution and mining.

There seems to be a naïve assumption that making an area of sea a marine reserve somehow erases its history.  Otherwise, why would there be such significance attributed to the case brought by Mauritius, which has long complained that the Chagos islands were illegally separated from Mauritius at the time it was given independence?  The UK promised, back in 1965, that it would return the Chagos to Mauritius when they were no longer needed for defence purposes.  The finding of a UN court of arbitration in the Hague is that this promise meant that Mauritius had an interest in the islands and should have been consulted on the creation of the marine reserve and a ban on fishing.  That may be so, but the tribunal did not – and did not have the power to – change British sovereignty over the islands.  So it is difficult to see the Foreign Office statement issued following the case as anything other than the driest of British jokes: “We will now work with Mauritius to explore how its fishing ambitions are compatible with conservation in the territory.”  The territory is at present almost all no-take and therefore as good for conservation as could be imagined.

Even more unresolved at the end of this government is the issue of Chagossian resettlement.  The Foreign Office entrusted the consultants KPMG with the task of looking at the feasibility of resettlement of the Chagossians, forcibly evicted in the 1970s in one of Britain’s last and shabbiest imperial acts.  The consultants found that the cost of resettling even a small number of Chagossians on Diego Garcia, let alone the outer islands, would run into hundreds of thousands of pounds per head.  James Duddridge, the Foreign Office minister responsible, told the Commons that there was not a “clear indication of demand for resettlement” and the costs to the UK taxpayer were “potentially significant.”  Work would have to go on to address these fundamental uncertainties under the next government.

So life goes on.  I found the press release that the Chagos Conservation Trust put out, and the Blue Marine Foundation supported, five years ago.  It said: “This designation will not prove a legal obstacle if the Chagossians are granted the right to return in the future.”  After five years of legal arguments, that remains true.  What is also true is that the creation of a marine reserve of 640,000 square kilometres, twice the size of UK, is an achievement that has received more world recognition that any British government is unlikely to wish to erase entirely, even if it were to change the protected area in some way to accommodate a returning population with subsistence needs.  It is certainly not likely to want to alter the reserve substantially to meet the demands of a rapacious fishing state, such as Mauritius, that has overfished its own waters.  It is to be expected that large marine reserves will face all sorts of challenges as circumstances change.  They are of such easily communicable value to the oceans, though, that it is hard to imagine the circumstances in which they might be wholly unpicked.


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