University helps UK Overseas Territory become sanctuary for wildlife

Marine scientists from the University of Plymouth have helped the world’s most remote inhabited island to become a sanctuary for wildlife.

The community of Tristan da Cunha, a small chain of islands over 6,000 miles from London in the South Atlantic, has declared that almost 700,000 km² of its waters will join the UK’s Blue Belt of marine protection.

The 687,247 km² Marine Protection Zone – almost three times the size of the UK – will safeguard one of the world’s most pristine marine environments and protect the wealth of wildlife that lives there.

It has been made possible thanks to an international partnership including the UK Government, RSPB, National Geographic Pristine Seas, Blue Nature Alliance and Becht Family Charitable Trust together with Blue Marine Foundation, Wyss Foundation, Kaltroco, Don Quixote II Foundation, British Antarctic Survey, University of Plymouth and the Natural History Museum.

The new Marine Protection Zone, announced in November 2020, will result in no fishing or other extractive activities being permitted across the whole area, also known as a 'no-take zone’. It makes the Tristan islanders the guardians of the largest no-take zone in the relatively unprotected Atlantic Ocean.

It also helps the UK Government with its ambition to lead the global effort to tackle the nature crisis and secure protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.

The University’s contribution to the report – led by Professor of Deep-Sea Ecology Kerry Howell and PhD candidate Amelia Bridges – has involved using predictive modelling to assess the extent and distribution of vulnerable marine ecosystems.

It focused on the deep seas of UK overseas territories in the South Atlantic, analysing photographic data from the sea floor and using it to produce a predictive map showing the distribution of cold water coral reefs in the region.

This work, subsequently ratified during a research cruise funded by the UK Government’s Blue Belt programme, was then presented to the Tristan da Cunha Government and other project partners as part of their evidence gathering for the Marine Protection Zone.

Professor Kerry Howell said:

“Until now, there has been very little research in the deep waters of the South Atlantic. So the work we have done in partnership with the British Antarctic Survey, Cefas and the Institute for Marine Research, Norway, has been really important in shedding light on the changing nature of the deep seas.
"This designation will be crucial for the sustainable management of the deep ocean, recognising that it is being used for human activity but taking steps to ensure its future conservation at the same time.”

James Glass, Tristan da Cunha Chief Islander, said:

“We’re delighted to announce our Marine Protection Zone, exactly 25 years after we declared Gough Island in the Tristan group a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our life on Tristan da Cunha has always been based around our relationship with the sea, and that continues today. The Tristan community is deeply committed to conservation: on land, we’ve already declared protected status for more than half our territory.
"But the sea is our vital resource, for our economy and ultimately for our long-term survival. That’s why we’re fully protecting 90% of our waters – and we’re proud that we can play a key role in preserving the health of the oceans. The Blue Belt Programme, RSPB and many others have been valuable partners in helping Tristan da Cunha develop its marine protection strategy. Our long-term relationships have been a strong foundation for this project: to help ensure the unique biodiversity of our archipelago, for the future population of the planet.”

Beccy Speight, the RSPB’s chief executive, said:

“This is a story two decades in the making, starting with the RSPB and Government of Tristan da Cunha commencing a conservation partnership, and culminating in the creation of this globally important protected area. The new Tristan MPZ will be the biggest no-take area in the Atlantic; the jewel in the crown of UK marine protection as an area where no extractive activities are permitted. Tristan da Cunha is a place like no other. The waters that surround this remote UK Overseas Territory are some of the richest in the world. Tens of millions of seabirds soar above the waves, penguins and seals cram onto the beaches, threatened sharks breed offshore and mysterious whales feed in the deep-water canyons. From today, we can say all of this is protected.

"In 2020 the importance of having nature in our lives has never been clearer. While Tristan da Cunha may be far away in distance it is still close to our hearts and protecting it is still the UK’s responsibility. Closer to home, the crisis facing nature is also huge. So huge that our wellbeing, our economic future, and our very survival depend on the choices we make now about the natural world. We need politicians to emulate the leadership of this small community to help us build the world we all want to live in. We hope today’s fantastic announcement is the first of many more that help revive our world.”

Enric Sala, National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence, said:

"It is testament to the vision of the Tristan da Cunha community that one of the world's smallest communities can make the single biggest contribution to global marine conservation this year. We can all look to Tristan for inspiration as the world commences a decade of work to protect 30% of the global ocean by 2030. The UK Government also deserves great credit for completing its 2016 'Blue Belt' commitment to protect at least four million square kilometres of ocean across its Overseas Territories by the end of 2020."

UK Minister for the Environment, Lord Goldsmith, said:

“We are hoovering life out of the ocean at an appalling rate, so this new marine protected area is really a huge conservation win and a critically important step in protecting the world’s biodiversity and ecosystems. Tristan da Cunha islanders and this coalition of NGOs and Foundations have done an extraordinary thing and deserve real gratitude and praise. It means our fantastic Blue Belt programme has over 4 million square kilometres of protected ocean around the UK Overseas Territories.”

From South Cornwall to the South Atlantic

Amelia Bridges spent her childhood on the beaches near Looe and graduated from the BSc Marine Biology and Oceanography course in September 2018.

She subsequently completed a ResM in Marine Sciences, focused on the UK’s overseas territories in the South Atlantic, before pursuing her PhD working alongside Professor Kerry Howell.

That work has focused on the island communities of Tristan da Cunha, St Helena and Ascension Island, carrying out assessments of the deep sea environment using a combination of existing data and spatial modelling.

This work has had direct impacts on policy decisions, while Amelia has also worked with residents to help make them more aware of what lies just off their coasts. She said:

“The deep seas are just as important for ecosystem function as shallower waters. And while there is a huge amount of data out there, because they are difficult to reach, people know much less about them. That is where my work on modelling comes in but it is important to communicate our findings to communities to help them appreciate what is around them and the effects that they can have on them.”

Assessing the deep seas

Amelia began working with Professor Kerry Howell during her degree and continues to work with her to develop greater understanding of the deep seas
Read more about Amelia and her research

Read more information linked to this article

In this hands-on degree, one of the best in the UK and with an international reputation, you’ll explore the diversity of marine life from coastal margins to the deep sea and gain an in-depth understanding of the biology of marine organisms. Teaching takes advantage of the South Devon coast as well as some of Europe’s best marine facilities – so you’ll have the opportunity to not just experience marine biology but to practice it at the highest levels in both the laboratory and out in the field.

You'll gain an understanding of marine life at the level of the biology of organisms – ranging from microbes found on coral reefs, the physiology and behaviour of marine vertebrates, to the biology of the marine algae that underpin the vast majority of other marine life.

Study BSc (Hons) Marine Biology

Marine Institute

Representing 3000 staff, researchers and students, the University of Plymouth's Marine Institute is the first and largest such institute in the UK. 

We provide the external portal to our extensive pool of world-leading experts and state-of-the-art facilities, enabling us to understand the relationship between the way we live, the seas that surround us and the development of sustainable policy solutions.

Discover more about the Marine Institute