Matt Ridley’s encouraging article in the Times (21 March 2016) quite rightly points to the ‘quiet revolution’ which has occurred in Britain’s protection of its ocean estate over the last year. He is right to credit the British government in leading the world ‘in saving our Blue planet’. This government, though often criticised for not being the greenest, has certainly been the bluest. These territories are indeed rich in biodiversity and the comparison of the British Isles only having 90 endemic species whereas St Helena has over 500 and Bermuda 300 is brilliantly observed.
Ridley raises interesting concerns about the barriers to Ascension formally designating its current closed area (236,134 square kilometres) or even closing 100% of its waters – an area the size of Germany. It is indeed a question of economics. The 800 Ascension islanders would have to forgo income from their fishery. The only funding thus far has been philanthropic (via the Blue Marine Foundation and donated by the Bacon Foundation), although the UK government will be taking on paying for enforcement in the future. Ascension’s infrastructure is crumbling, as Charles Clover observed on his last visit to the island in February, and the island is in much need of revenue.
However, it is worth elaborating on the economics of the fishery that has been partially closed. It is not a fishery run by the locals, but a series of licences sold largely to Taiwanese fishing vessels. In its peak year (2011), the contribution to Ascension from these licences was around £1 million, or 16 per cent of the island’s income. But compare this to the estimated £14 million haul that was being extracted from Ascension’s waters. One can only assume that such a haul was likely to dwindle as time went on, leaving Ascension with very few natural assets in the long term. And the catch came at an ecological and social price too. Vessels fishing in Ascension’s waters were suspected of shark finning. By-catch from the long-liners which fished there (mostly sharks) was estimated at up to a third by the RSPB. Conditions on board Taiwanese vessels is notoriously bad with allegations of extremely poor labour practices. So closure of the fishery was a humanitarian and environmental necessity. The reopened fishery in the northern half of Ascension’s waters has far higher standards and is monitored by Ascension’s fisheries and conservation officers.
But Ridley’s suggestion that the choice facing Ascension is between a no-take zone and a fishery does not mention a potential fertile middle ground based on eco-tourism for divers and bird watchers and well-policed recreational fishing. Ascension waters teem with exceptionally large fish. Extreme fishers make the difficult trip to Ascension to wrestle with giants and break records. But to come to the island in any numbers, people need to be able to fly there. Currently, this is made difficult by the UK and US military insisting that only military flights can land there. By opening the island and expanding tourism to this extraordinary volcanic island, Ascension could thrive economically and protect its wildlife indefinitely.
What is now needed is for the ‘quiet revolution’ to breed a vision for Ascension and the other overseas territories – a vision which sees these remote territories profiting in every sense from their extraordinary biodiversity. With a vision to top its revolution, Britain could continue to lead the world.