Coral reefs are the world’s most biodiverse and productive marine system, providing food and coastal protection to millions. Researchers from the University of Warwick have co-ordinated new approaches to coral reef conservation, restoration and management in the British Indian Ocean Territory, providing the basis for the UK Government’s declaration of a strictly enforced ‘no-take’ Marine Protected Area (MPA). This is the world’s largest strictly protected MPA, and is a major step forward for marine conservation and food security in a region that has undergone massive decline in ecological integrity and its ability to produce protein for many of the world’s poorest countries.
Coral reef ecosystems are core to the livelihoods of countless coastal communities. However, global warming, pollution, over-fishing and other human activities are destroying many of the world’s coral reefs; about one third of coral reefs are now dead, and a further third are undergoing rapid decline. Human populations that depend on these ecosystems for survival are suffering, with resulting food shortages leading to increases in death and disease.
The coral reefs and islands of the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean are a British Overseas Territory, and they are the UK’s most biodiverse marine environment. A large-scale collaborative research project explored the unique aspects of the network of reefs, demonstrating a uniquely high degree of biodiversity within the area. As it is largely uninhabited, human impact on the Chagos reefs is minimal; it boasts the cleanest seawaters ever tested and unrivalled biological richness, biomass and productivity.
In 2010, under the leadership of Professor Charles Sheppard from the University of Warwick, the research team supplied evidence that underpinned the UK Government’s decision to declare the 650,000 km2 British Indian Ocean Territory as a Marine Protected Area.
Limiting human activity in the area is supporting ecosystem conservation to benefit tropical habitats and is helping to preserve livelihoods and increase food security in some of the poorest countries in that region. The unique biodiversity and lack of human impacts have led to Chagos being established as a global reference site for other research projects, representing the optimal tropical marine ecosystem which can act as a baseline to which standards of other reef ecosystems can be compared.
The studies have shown that where an area is vulnerable to climate change, rapid reef recovery is possible where human activity is restricted. These findings have provided considerable support for the concept of strictly protected Marine Protected Areas.
The British Indian Ocean Territory marine reserve is the biggest of its kind in the world, and signalled a major step forward for ecosystem conservation and food security in the region. Use of Chagos as a reference site is providing a strong foundation for the restoration and management of other damaged reefs, enabling communities in other countries to understand how to protect reefs and what can be achieved from the repair of reef ecosystems that have been damaged. This is especially important for resource-poor countries and for those whose communities are most reliant on a healthy reef ecosystem.
Images courtesy of Anne Sheppard