My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
Further to the announcement that funding had been secured to establish a new marine protected area around Ascension Island, my colleague Jonathan Hall (who has worked tirelessly on this joint campaign) offers his perspective on what this decision means for wildlife.
Endangered green turtle nesting on Ascension Island. Image courtesy of Sam Weber
The first thing you notice from the air when flying in to Ascension Island is that someone has been bombing the beaches. Or at least is looks like they have, so pockmarked are the beaches with hundreds of craters. In fact, they’re caused by the massive green turtle population, the second largest in the entire Atlantic, which come to breed on this remote volcano and dig nests on every available stretch of sand. And its not just turtles that make this island, a UK Overseas Territory in the tropical Atlantic, such a wildlife hotspot. Since the RSPB and Ascension Island Government removed feral cats from the island in 2004, its seabird population has been booming, reinforcing the island’s claim to be one of the most important tropical seabird breeding sites in the world. Coupled with record-breaking marlin, threatened tuna, unique resplendent angelfish and vulnerable shark populations, Ascension is a marine treasure of the first order.
Unique Ascension frigatebirds and vast shoals of blackfish patrol Ascension’s shores. Image courtesy of Paul Colley
Building on our decade-long programme to restore Ascension’s terrestrial environment, we began work to protect Ascension’s rich marine environment in July 2012 when we became concerned about the management of Ascension’s commercial fishery (licences were unfortunately being sold to industrial Taiwanese longliners to come in to Ascension’s waters to fish and then leave again with almost no environmental, scientific or social safeguards in place). Good discussions with the Ascension Government resulted in them taking the bold and very welcome decision to totally shut down the fishery at the end of 2013 in order to review their marine management options.
We believed that the best possible option for both the Ascension marine environment and the 800 residents who work on Ascension was to create a fully-protected offshore marine reserve (an ‘Ascension Island Ocean Sanctuary’), leaving the inshore area where all the local fishing effort takes place open to sustainable fishing practices. Unlike the Pacific and Indian oceans, the Atlantic Ocean has as yet no large-scale marine reserves, and the rich waters of Ascension island represent one of the very few opportunities to protect threatened marine wildlife in this vast ocean. Ascension was interested in exploring options for large-scale offshore marine protection, but were clear that their tiny community could absolutely not afford the costs of protecting a vast marine area almost twice the size of the UK themselves: sustainable long-term financing would be required.
Illegal fishing vessel drying shark fins on its deck. Photo taken in Ascension’s waters in 2008. Image courtesy of Mike Greenfelder .
We therefore approached the Marine Reserves Coalition, a group of 5 NGOs, to seek further partners to advocate for the UK Government funding required to protect these British waters, ultimately forming the Great British Oceans campaign to secure large-scale marine protection around 3 Overseas Territories, including Ascension. It has been a huge and wonderful team effort, but we were delighted to have four of the main UK political parties pledge to protect Ascension in their election manifesto’s last spring, and now this week the announcement has been made that at least 50% of Ascension’s rich waters will be designated as a fully-protected marine reserve. At roughly the size of the UK, this will be the largest in the Atlantic.
The announcement has been facilitated by a £300,000 donation from the Bacon Foundation, facilitated by our partner, the Blue Marine Foundation. This will cover the interim costs of protection for the first 18 months, with the UK Government then agreeing to pick up the tab from thereon. To hear from the perspective of BLUE’s Executive Chairman, Charles Clover: “It has been fantastic working in partnership with the RSPB and Ascension Island Government. When the RSPB asked BLUE to work with them on the challenge of creating the largest marine reserve in the Atlantic back in 2014, we knew it was an opportunity where we could add value to their work and were delighted to take up the task. That partnership has now delivered via the generous funding BLUE secured from the Bacon Foundation, and we look forward to continuing work with the RSPB to deliver permanent marine reserve designation around Ascension in 2017".
So what next? Ascension has now closed an interim area representing 52.6% of its marine zone to fishing, and further scientific work will now take place over the coming years to confirm whether any alterations should be made to these boundaries before final marine reserve designation. We’re really excited to be bringing new partners from National Geographic to visit the island this year, and will continue to hold the UK Government to account to ensure they deliver the funding and support required for this too-often overlooked treasure of the tropical Atlantic. But those are all next steps, and for a brief moment we can celebrate a major step towards protecting the amazing tuna, sharks, marlin and seabirds of Ascension in the Atlantic’s first fully-protected large-scale marine reserve.
Fair point. I'll see what I can do.
Can I also suggest a mention of this project in the news section on the front of the main RSPB website - the last news item is dated 7th December 2015 - a lot has happened since then.
Thanks for this George. It was covered at the weekend by a few papers but I think the ongoing floods restricted its profile. Of course we shall be saying more through RSPB's own channels eg the magazine soon. Best wishes, Martin
Congratulations RSPB and particularly Jonathan Hall for your work on this project. I can only guess at the huge amount of time and effort that has been expended to achieve this breakthrough and hope the project continues to grow.
Reading this blog gave me a real lift and made me feel proud to be a RSPB member and I am sure that the majority of other members will feel the same. Surely then this news should have been shouted from the rooftops with greater enthusiasm rather than tucked away in a website blog.