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Ascension Island Soon to Be the Atlantic Ocean’s Largest Marine Protected Area

The council of Ascension Island, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, recently announced its support for the designation of a giant marine reserve around Ascension Island. At 440,000 square kilometers, the new reserve will be by far the largest in the Atlantic Ocean (roughly the size of the state of California). Once established, the marine protected area (MPA) will bring the highest level of protection to this region’s exceptional biodiversity by prohibiting commercial fishing and extractive industries.

By: Enric Sala, Explorer-in-Residence and Leader of National Geographic Pristine Seas

This weekend marked a major milestone for the ocean. On August 24 the council of Ascension Island, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic, announced its support for the designation of a giant marine reserve around Ascension Island. At 440,000 square kilometers, the new fully protected reserve will be by far the largest in the Atlantic Ocean (roughly the size of the state of California). Once established, the marine protected area (MPA) will bring the highest level of protection to this region’s exceptional biodiversity by prohibiting commercial fishing and extractive industries.

Green valley alongside rocky mountain terrain with a cloudy sky
Photo by Jack Kirby, National Geographic Pristine Seas

Ascension Island is an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom in the middle of the Atlantic, between Brazil and West Africa. The island is the top of an ancient volcano that broke through the ocean’s surface a million years ago. When Charles Darwin visited the island in 1836, he found a treeless world that had been devoid of anything larger than grass for introduced sheep and goats. In 1843, botanist and explorer Joseph Hooker developed a plan—encouraged by Darwin himself—to replant Ascension with trees. From 1847 to 1850, ships brought plants from botanical gardens the Americas and Africa to Ascension Island. By the late 1870s, the highest point of the island had become a tropical cloud forest made of introduced species—a new world to replace a lost one.

School of fish underwater with mountains in the distances under semi-cloudy blue sky
Photo by Paul Colley, courtesy of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

But below the surface there is a world that Darwin and Hooker never saw, a massive ocean ecosystem with green turtles that come to nest on Ascension’s beaches, sharks, tuna, and deep seamounts full of life found nowhere else. Our National Geographic Pristine Seas team has seen the beauty and importance of this region firsthand. In 2017, we embarked on a two-month scientific expedition to Ascension Island in collaboration with the Ascension Island Conservation Department, the British Antarctic Survey, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and the Blue Marine Foundation. There, we studied the deep ocean surrounding the island—places that humans rarely see—including its seamounts: isolated areas that are biodiversity hotspots teeming with marine life. Our team conducted 32 surveys of seabirds and flying fish, deployed 18 drop cams to document the sea life living in the deepest parts of the region’s ocean floor, mapped 277 square kilometers of seamounts, and found seven different species of shark—including the rarely spotted sixgill shark. Ascension is an oasis of abundance surrounded by an ocean of overexploitation.

Sixgill shark underwater
Drop cam photo by National Geographic Pristine Seas

The governor of the territory will publish the designation this week, upon the recommendation of the Ascension Council. Preparations for a management plan and legislation are already underway, but will not be put in place until the UK government confirms that it will fund the ongoing costs of management, monitoring, and enforcement of the protected area. The MPA will be monitored using satellite surveillance, already successfully tested at Ascension. 

We are extremely delighted to be able to make this significant recommendation to the governor. The designation of such a large-scale marine protected area will ensure that the near pristine marine environment around Ascension Island will be protected for future generations. We now eagerly await appropriate funding from the UK government to support the ongoing future management costs of the MPAAscension Island Council

The bow of ship along a body of water with mountains in the distance under partly cloudy skies.
Photo by Paul Rose, National Geographic Pristine Seas

Protecting marine environments like the seamounts of Ascension Island is critical to safeguarding a future for our planet. Right now, just 5 percent of our ocean is in implemented protected areas, but less than 3 percent is off-limits to commercial fishing and other destructive practices that are responsible for the loss of 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean over the past 70 years. 

The creation of fully protected areas with long-term funding and management plans like the one designated by Ascension Island are increasingly important for the future of the planet. Countries like the United Kingdom have joined the call to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030. National Geographic, along with the Wyss Campaign for Nature and a growing coalition of conservation organizations, is working to support the protection of 30 percent of both land and sea by 2030. The science shows that this is the absolute minimum we need to prevent massive species extinction, to prevent the collapse of the systems that support life on Earth, and to ensure that nature continues to help us avert a climate catastrophe.

I’ve seen this work firsthand: in fully protected areas, life comes back spectacularly. Steps like the creation of the Ascension Island marine protected area and the United Kingdom calling to protect 30 percent of the ocean by 2030 are exactly the kind of leadership we need to address the urgent threats to future generations of life on Earth.Enric Sala, explorer-in-residence and Leader of National Geographic Pristine Seas

Marine reserve designations are hugely important to conserving our planet’s biodiversity, but sufficient funding to maintain and monitor these reserves is essential. If the UK’s Blue Belt program fully funds the Ascension Island Council’s proposal, this will be one of the ocean’s true conservation success stories.

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