Jonathan Hall, RSPB Head of UK Overseas Territories Unit, talks cheeky penguins, kelp forests and marine reserves in our latest sealife blog.
The ‘green seas’ featured in the latest spell-binding episode of Blue Planet II were dazzling. And the fact that many of these habitats, from shimmering sea-grass beds to epic underwater forests of kelp, are actually found in British waters is amazing.
This isn’t necessarily around the UK, but rather in the vast waters of our Overseas Territories, which collectively make up the fifth largest marine zone on the planet. And it is in these waters that the RSPB is working to hard protect some of the species and habitats shown, including green turtles and sea-lion filled kelp forests.
Our Overseas Territories marine programme has long been focussed on Ascension Island, home to the second largest green turtle nesting population in the Atlantic. Standing on one of the island’s beaches at night you can be surrounded by hundreds of large female turtles huffing and puffing as they dig holes to lay their eggs in. This provided an easy bonanza for sailors wanting fresh meat in the nineteenth century, but today the species is protected on land and its numbers are booming.
Ascension and the UK Government have now gone further and also pledged to protect at least 50% of Ascension’s rich waters in an ocean sanctuary the size of the UK by 2019. This is a visionary pledge and one we have been working to help make a reality through science and illegal fishing monitoring support.
Green turtle nesting on Ascension Island (c) Sam Weber
We are also focussing on supporting the remarkable community of Tristan da Cunha in the South Atlantic to help protect their kelp forests and surrounding waters. This, the world’s most remote inhabited island, is home to a remarkable ocean ecosystem, with vast kelp stretching like the pillars of a cathedral up from the sea floor to the surface. In this magnificent silent jungle one finds huge shoals of fish, cheeky Northern rockhopper penguins and the most important Subantarctic fur seal population on the planet.
These kelp forests are the basis for an entire community of species, but perhaps most significantly are also the habitat for the unique Tristan rock lobster upon which the 270 Tristanians so heavily depends for their livelihoods. Their sustainable fishery is already Marine Stewardship Council certified, and we are working to help them further understand their lobster populations via a UK Government-funded Darwin Plus project so that they can manage them as well as possible. We are also studying the endangered penguins which call these forests home in order to help understand the potential reasons for their decline.
Over 80% of the world population of Subantarctic fur seals breeds in the Tristan da Cunha group, a UK Overseas Territory in the South Atlantic that is working towards a large-scale marine protection regime (c) Scott Hamilton
Most impressively, the Tristan da Cunha community has made its own visionary pledge to place its entire 750,000km2 marine zone into a marine protection regime by 2020. This will safeguard these inshore green seas for future generations of Tristanians, as well as protecting a vast area of ocean for sharks, albatrosses, seals, whales and dolphins. In order to help the community better understand their waters and inform their marine protection, we partnered with National Geographic Pristine Seas earlier in the year to conduct a joint expedition to the island, returning with new discoveries such as the fact that Tristan’s waters are a previously unknown blue shark breeding area.
The beautiful kelp forests of Tristan da Cunha being explored on the National Geographic Pristine Seas – RSPB marine expedition earlier this year (c) Roger Horrocks
So how can you help protect our incredible overseas green seas? Well the RSPB is part of a coalition called ‘Great British Oceans’, which this week has launched a campaign calling on the UK Government to take this unique opportunity to protect our blue planet, including by supporting the visionary marine protection pledges of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha.
These will both need continued UK Government political and financial support, but will protect some vast and amazing areas of ocean at very little cost. We are asking MPs to show their support for these marine protections by signing up to a Blue Belt Charter. Could you please take a minute to visit and show your support for our overseas green seas?