Pitcairn Marine Reserve - only an announcement of intention to designate but could be a breakthrough?

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The UK Government's budget statement rarely gives cheer to marine conservationists, but this year was different, as buried in p.97 of the red book were the words:

"2.259 Marine Protected Area (MPA) at Pitcairn – The government intends to proceed with designation of a MPA around Pitcairn. This will be dependent upon reaching agreement with NGOs on satellite monitoring and with authorities in relevant ports to prevent landing of illegal catch, as well as on identifying a practical naval method of enforcing the MPA at a cost that can be accommodated within existing departmental expenditure limits"

This follows an intense campaign by the Great British Oceans Coalition and others. Let's be clear, this is only an announcement of an intention to designate this vast remote no-take MPA, and many challenges remain ahead, recognizing that the Pitcairn Marine Reserve, at 834,000 km2, will be nearly as large as the entire UK Continental Shelf, and that it is in a very remote area of the Pacific, almost on the other side of the world from the UK. This will make it a major challenge to enforce, but this can be done, with sufficient resources and political will, otherwise the announcement and any potential designation risks descending into a political salve. The statement makes it clear that these challenges are being taken very seriously, and that the eventual designation will be "dependent" on addressing them. To this end, the UK government is working in collaboration with the Pew Charitable Trust and the Bertarelli Foundation (both of whom are also involved in the UK's Chagos MPA) to develop the 'eyes on the oceans' satellite surveillance system to detect fishing vessels that breach the eventual ban. However, detection is just the beginning, recognising that determined illegal vessels will attempt to avoid detection by disabling their VMS-AIS transponders (if they even have these fitted!). The vessels will still have to be detained or identified for eventual interception (at sea or at a port elsewhere in the world), including the gathering of sufficient evidence to convince authorities to pursue a prosecution and to gain a guilty verdict. These prosecutions must then deliver sufficient penalties to deter other potential illegal fishers.

So we have an announcement of an intention to designate, but designation needs to be followed by the three D's of enforcement: detection, detainment (or identification for eventual interception, including the gathering of sufficient evidence) and deterrence [1]. Whilst enforcement clearly represents a major challenge, the statement on the intention to designate is encouraging in that it is clear that the UK government recognises that these challenges will have to be met, and that it is willing to engage with NGOs, satellite surveillance providers, the Royal Navy, the FAO (through Port State Measures, etc), Interpol, etc. in developing a protective system which will enable this vast remote marine reserve to be effectively enforced. However, the budget statement also included a commitment to further massive cuts in government expenditure (though few details were provided on where these cuts would be made) and these could have major implications for "enforcing the MPA at a cost that can be accommodated within existing departmental expenditure limits".

Enforcement issues aside, it is important to note that the worst overfishing takes place in 'metropolitan seas' near larger populations, and to recognise that it is politically easier to designate vast MPAs in such remote residual areas, rather than where they are most needed, i.e. metropolitan seas where fisheries are more heavily exploited. Britain’s struggle to create significant MPAs around its own coast,compared to the eagerness to designate vast no-take MPAs in overseas territories that will not directly affect the economic interests of voters, illustrates this issue very well.

[1] Jones, P.J.S. (2014) Governing Marine Protected Areas: resilience through diversity, p.155. [See review of this book in Nature, as well as the review by Bob Earll - MPA News interview-letter on scale challenges for MPA networks-Living Seas blog - Routledge blog for more information on this new book; based on the MPA Governance project www.mpag.info]

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