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Better late than never

New marine sanctuaries are a good start

Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve will be monitored in real time, 24/7 by a Virtual Watch Room.

If you follow environmental news, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by reports about the damage and stresses we humans put on the world’s oceans. The past 10 years, however, have also seen some bold initiatives by governments and conservation groups to preserve and protect the ocean’s bounty.

Earlier this year, the British government, in collaboration with Pew Charitable Trusts, announced its intent to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve in the waters surrounding the Pitcairn Islands, a United Kingdom territory in the remote central South Pacific. At 322,138 square miles, the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve is the largest continuous area of protected ocean on the planet — and about three-and-a-half times the size of the U.K.

Within these waters lies one of the best-preserved ecosystems — a community of hard and soft corals that are home to an estimated 1,249 species of marine life, including 365 species of fish (two of which are found nowhere else in the world), 22 species of whales and dolphins, two species of sea turtles and what is believed to be the world’s deepest-dwelling live plant, according to Pew. The designation marks the first time that any government has combined the creation of a fully protected marine area with detailed plans for surveillance and enforcement, setting a new standard for the comprehensive monitoring of protected areas.

The newly established reserve accounts for about 17 percent of the world’s protected ocean waters. “With this designation, the United Kingdom raises the bar for protection of our ocean and sets a new standard for others to follow,” says Matt Rand, director of Global Ocean Legacy, in a statement. (Global Ocean Legacy is a project of Pew and its partners that strives to conserve unspoiled marine environments around the world.) “Through this designation, British citizens are playing a vital role in ensuring the health of our seas.”

National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala, who’s head of the society’s Pristine Seas project, says the group’s first scientific exploration of the area revealed new species, as well as an abundance of top predators, such as sharks. “It was like traveling to a new world full of hidden and unknown treasures, a world that will now be preserved for generations to come,” says Sala.

The Pitcairn reserve is home to nearly 1,249 species of marine life, including 365 fish species.

The Pitcairn reserve will be closely monitored. In conjunction with the Bertarelli Foundation, a philanthopic group devoted to marine conservation and life science research, it announced a five-year commitment to support the monitoring of the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve as part of Pew’s Project Eyes on the Seas, using technology known as the Virtual Watch Room. With this satellite monitoring system, developed through a collaboration between Pew and the U.K.-based Satellite Applications Catapult, government officials will be able to detect illegal fishing activity in real time.

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The reserve is part of a growing international movement over the past decade to safeguard important marine areas, which has resulted in the protection of more than 2.5 million square miles. The United States established a National System of Marine Protected Areas in April 2009, which strengthens the protection of U.S. ocean, coastal and Great Lakes resources. In April 2010 the British government created the Chagos Marine Reserve in the Indian Ocean. In September 2014 President Barack Obama significantly expanded the Pacific Remote Islands National Marine Monument in the south-central Pacific from about 87,000 square miles to more than 490,000 square miles. Worldwide, statistics show a quadrupling of Marine Protected Areas over the last 10 years, according to The Nature Conservancy. Despite these successes, only about 3 percent of our oceans are protected areas, and only 1 percent is fully protected.

This article originally appeared in the July 2015 issue.