The Pitcairn Islands marine reserve

Pitcairn inhabitants are lobbying to create the world's largest marine reserve, of nearly a million square kilometres, in their waters
10 December 2013

Interview with 

Simon Young and Melva Evans, Pitcairn Islands. Elisabeth Whitebread, Pew Charitable Trust's Global Ocean Legacy project


The fifty residents of the Pitcairn Islands, a British Overseas Territory, are trying to create the world's largest marine reserve. Representatives Simon Young and Melva Evans visited Cambridge recently to put their case to the Pitcairn Islands MapBritish government. Kate Lamble went to see them.

Melva -  Our forefathers were men of the sea and our foremothers were the intrepid women of French Polynesia. It's incredibly important to us that we have a good environment, that we have clean disease-free fish to eat.  But we've also got fabulous coral formations.  And so, we're here because we are both passionate about getting this marine reserve established and we'd like to convince the British government to give their thumbs up to our proposal.  

Kate -  I had to look Pitcairn up on a map I have to be honest.  You zoom out and it's just blue and you zoom out a bit more and it's just blue, and you zoom out a bit more, there's still this blue.  It's literally in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  So, you can imagine by looking at a map like that, how important the sea must be, how is it involved in your day to day lives?

Simon -  When you're on Pitcairn, you're right.  It's just a little dot in the middle of the ocean.  It's only 1 mile by 2.  We are absolutely defined by the ocean and we live off the land and the sea.

Melva -  The sea is the only way we have in and out of Pitcairn.  We don't have an airport.  Our closest neighbours are 300 miles away in French Polynesia.  To get there, we have to travel by ship for 2 nights and 1 day and then take a ferry across the lagoon in Mangareva, to the airport there.  Then it's 5.5 hours to Tahiti, another 8.5 hours to Los Angeles, another 10.5 hours to London.  Not only do we travel that way, but all our supplies.  What we can't grow on Pitcairn comes in via the ship from New Zealand.

Kate -  Being an island that's, as you just said, defined by the ocean, why has preserving it become important now?  Are you viewing the sea as it being under threat and that's why you want the marine reserve or is it a precautionary measure?

Simon -  People who have lived on Pitcairn Island for the last 220 years have always treated the ocean with the greatest respect.  So, I think it's precautionary to ensure that it's there for not only the future generations of Pitcairners, but also, on a global scale.

Melva -  The National Geographic Expedition of 2012 has shown that we have pristine reefs in our areas.  We would like to protect that.  Now, we don't want to wait until we get to a point where we have to search for funding to do restoration or remediation.  It just makes sense to protect it.

Kate -  Let's say you got the marine reserve.  What would it mean to the people of Pitcairn?  What difference to the community would it literally make on the ground?

Simon -  It would mean that we wouldn't have to entertain the idea of having to deal with fishing vessels.  We wouldn't have to consider those applications anymore because we are intending on establishing the entire EEZ more or less.  EEZ is the Exclusive Economic Zone that exists around all nations, which have got ocean around them, and so, this extends normally for 200 miles unless you hit somebody else's EEZ.  Pitcairn has 3 other islands in the group, also separated by hundreds of miles.  So, this is why, together, Pitcairn island has an enormous EEZ, relatively speaking, for 50 people who live there, of over 800,000 square km, so that's very large.

Elisabeth -  My name is Elisabeth Whitebread.  I work with The Pew Charitable Trusts Global Ocean Legacy programme.  Pew is an American NGO but in our London office, one the projects we work on is setting up marine reserves around some of Britain's overseas territories.

Kate -  Why Pitcairn?  What's so special about the waters around Pitcairn that we couldn't find anywhere else?

Elisabeth -  One, Pitcairn genuinely is incredibly special when you look at the rest of the world's oceans.  So, we conducted a joint expedition with the National Geographic Society last year and they had with them scientists who have dived all over the world.  Some of them 5,000-6, 000 dives under their belts. They came up at the water literally like laughing, smiling, so excited by what they'd seen because Ducie, which is one of the islands in Pitcairn, it's the most southerly coral atoll in the world.  In places, it has 100% coral cover.  It has one of the highest percentages biomass of top predators of anywhere in the Pacific.  It is as near to pristine as you can get.  We're so used to seeing oceans that are over exploited that the Pitcairn islands are really exceptional.  The other reason is that we can, and this is something that we really believe in a Global Ocean Legacy that we need to protect what we can now.  On Pitcairn island, we have a really unusual situation where we have unanimous support of an entire community to create what would be the world's largest strictly protected marine reserve.  We have an opportunity here for the British government to do something really good.

Kate -  For you guys who live on the island, when the divers came back and said, "We've been doing this for so long.  We've never seen anything like this."  Did you guys know what was down there?  Had you been diving?

Melva -  No.  We've not done much diving at all.  We'd always thought we had something special.  I mean, there are areas down there that you could go fishing and you would be guaranteed a catch.  So, there must've been something special down there.  We had no idea that this reef that they discovered, which was - was it 30 meters down? - which is twice the usual depth of a reef.  And then we saw the film footage and were just blown away.  I'm sorry.  It was incredible.  We knew that we had to do something to protect it.

Kate -  We talked earlier about this being the largest marine reserve anywhere in the world.  How is this zone, which is so large and so remote, enforceable?

Elisabeth -  Clearly, you can never have perfect enforcement.  You know, just because we have laws against robbery and people still steal things.  But there are emerging technologies that are making this a much more cost-effective problem to solve.  So, we're investigating solutions connected to satellite technology and even things that seem relatively low tech, like just making sure that you have an adequate legal infrastructure in place, is very important.  So, Pitcairn has actually a great opportunity to be a test case for a lot of these things because if you can enforce in Pitcairn, you can do it anywhere.


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