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How a marine reserve could make Pitcairn the crown jewel of the South Pacific

Spectator, 18th October 2013


Last week, while the Mayor of London (pop. 7.8 million) was visiting China, the Deputy Mayor of Pitcairn (pop. 50) was visiting London. I met Simon Young for afternoon tea in a riverside restaurant near the Tower of London. Both he, and a fellow member of the Pitcairn Council, Mrs Melva Evans, had travelled thousands of miles to Britain with one specific purpose: to persuade the Government to designate a vast area around the Pitcairn Islands as a marine reserve.

Most of us, I suppose, know the Pitcairn Islands as the place where the mutineers from the Bounty settled, with their Tahitian companions, in 1790. The majority of the current population are their direct descendants. If Pitcairn was a pretty remote place at the end of the 18th Century, it remains so today. There is no airport. The supply vessel, MV Claymore II, visits once every three months. The island’s website enticingly adds: ‘if you have a yacht, come pay us a visit’, but the reality is that Pitcairn is 2325 kilometres east of Tahiti and about 2000 kilometres west of Easter Island, and there is nothing but ocean in between.

For an hour or so, Simon Young and Melva Evans briefed me enthusiastically on the proposal they were in the process of putting forward to the British Government.

‘The Pitcairn Council had a public meeting on Sunday, September 23, only three weeks or so ago. They voted unanimously to proceed with the process of setting up a Marine Reserve,’ Young said.

Melva Evans added:

‘Pitcairn is the smallest functioning democracy in the world. We hope the authorities will now listen to the voice of the people.’

In a formal sense, the decision to designate the Pitcairn Marine Reserve lies with a lady called Victoria (‘Vicki’) Treadell, who is currently the UK’s High Commissioner in New Zealand, 5576 kilometres away from Pitcairn! A multi-tasker, Vicki Treadell is also the Governor of the Pitcairn Islands. She can sign the Marine Reserve into existence with a single stroke of the gubernatorial quill-pen.

But, for all practical purposes, the Pitcairn Governor will be guided by the advice of the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague.

‘Will you be seeing Mr Hague?’ I asked. ‘He is a very fine man. You have travelled many thousands of miles. I hope you have a chance to see him. I am sure he will wish to see you.’

The two Pitcairners looked a bit doubtful. I don’t think a date has as yet been set in stone for such a meeting.

I am not, of course, privy to William Hague’s diary but I much hope he may be able to find a moment to receive these two stalwart souls from the other side of the world.

First of all, there is the intrinsic merit of the proposal. The Pitcairn Marine Reserve, while providing for subsistence fishing rights within a 12-mile zone to people living and working on Pitcairn, would include the area from the 12-nautical mile limit out to the 200 nautical mile limit. At over 830,000 square kilometres, this would create the world’s largest marine reserve. This will protect a vast number of marine species and unique underwater habitats.

Potentially, there could also be an increase in tourist opportunities, benefitting the Pitcairn islanders. 60% of cruise ship operators say the presence of a marine reserve would or might encourage them to visit Pitcairn in the future. Scientists and divers with a research interest could also be attracted to visit Pitcairn, given the exceptional purity of the water.

There is the political aspect to be considered as well. I would argue that for the Foreign Secretary, and the Government more generally, this is a no-brainer. It was never going to be easy, at a time of economic crisis, for the government to maintain its green credentials. The current furore over the rise in energy prices, and the part which ‘green’ taxes and subsidies may have played in this, is a case in point.

If we are looking for ‘win-win’ environmental issues (and who isn’t?), we need to look beyond climate-change. Take the protection of the world’s biodiversity, for example, another major international objective, reconfirmed at last year’s (June 2012) Earth Summit, held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Through its Overseas Territories in particular, the UK is a major ‘player’ in the biodiversity league. This may be largely the result of historical accident and the imperial legacy; but it is also a fact of life. And the marine biodiversity of the Overseas Territories is one important component of that portfolio.

The Government’s record in protecting marine biodiversity, at least in the Overseas Territories is important and, on the whole, good. The Cayman Islands, the Falklands, the British Virgin Islands and, most recently, Chagos are all places where measures to protect the marine environment have been put in place. But the biggest prize of all, in conservation terms, could be the Pitcairn Islands and the surrounding seas.

As I understand it, the Government is already aware of the proposal made by the Pitcairn Island Council for a Marine Reserve. UK officials have, apparently, in particular raised questions about enforcement measures in the ‘no-take’ zone, and their potential cost. Since my meeting with Simon Young and Melva Evans last week, I have had the chance to read the detailed report on the enforcement issue which has submitted to the Foreign Office, jointly, by the Pitcairn Island Council, the Pew Charitable Trust and National Geographic. The report argues that monitoring and enforcement of the Pitcairn Island’s exclusive economic zone could be effectively undertaken for a relatively low level of expenditure (up to £700,000 annually). It also raises the possibility of cost-savings to be had through international cooperation, e.g. with French Polynesia (a jointly- managed zone?), Chile, or New Zealand.

Of course, it is right in these straitened times for the Government to be cautious. But the cost of inaction has also to be considered. If the waters around the Pitcairn Islands are fished out while we wait to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, the marine life there may never recover. The cost to the UK of supporting even the small population of the Pitcairn Islands, when the fish have gone for good, will certainly be far higher than the costs of policing the Marine Reserve. Man cannot live by bread-fruit alone. Not nowadays, anyway.

Over to you, Mr Hague.