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Chagos Marine Protected Area

The Chagos Marine Protected Area was intended to be the largest contiguous no-take marine reserve declared in the world, covering a total surface area of 640,000 square kilometres (397,667 sq mi)[1] – over twice the surface area of the UK.[note 1] On 18 March 2015, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled that the Chagos Marine Protected Area was illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.[3][4]

The Chagos marine reserve protects the world’s largest coral atoll (the Great Chagos Bank) and has one of the healthiest reef systems in the cleanest waters of the world, supporting nearly half the area of good quality reefs in the Indian Ocean.[5] No-take marine reserves are areas of the sea in which there is no fishing allowed and as little other human disturbance as can be reasonably arranged. The Chagos reserve was established by the British government on 1 April 2010, and its protection is funded through 2015 with financial support from the Bertarelli Foundation.[6]

Chagos, an archipelago of 55 tiny islands, is located in the central Indian Ocean, about 1,500 km from the southern tip of India, 3,400 km due east of Africa and 3,000 km west of Indonesia. Politically, Chagos is constituted as the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT).[1] The establishment of the protected area has been controversial, as the largest island in the area, Diego Garcia, was forcibly depopulated to make way for a United States military base in 1968 and onwards, an action that has been described as ethnic cleansing.[7] In a cable leaked by Wikileaks, a US State Department official commented based on talks with British ministers and officials that establishing the reserve would be the "most effective long-term way to prevent any of the Chagos Islands' former inhabitants or their descendants from resettling."[8]

The same cable explained that the protection would permit environmental damage if caused by military use: "the terms of reference for the establishment of a marine park would clearly state that the BIOT, including Diego Garcia, was reserved for military uses... the establishment of a marine reserve had the potential to be a 'win-win situation in terms of establishing situational awareness' of the BIOT...[the government] sought 'no constraints on military operations' as a result of the establishment of a marine park." An exemption in the MPA allows people from the US nuclear base on Diego Garcia to continue fishing. In 2010, more than 28 tonnes of fish was caught for use by personnel on the base.[9][10]


Previous to the establishment of the marine reserve, the Chagos Archipelago had been declared an Environmental (Preservation and Protection) Zone with legislation in place to protect much of the area’s natural resources.[11] Commercial fishing, however, was licensed for both reef fish and tuna.[12] Though the UK government has opposed the area being proposed as a World Heritage Site, it has agreed to treat it as such in order to preserve its environmental value.[13]

The case for a large scale marine reserve in the Chagos was first put forward by a consortium of conservation organisations led by the Chagos Environment Network, a collaboration of nine leading scientific and conservation organisations, in "The Chagos Archipelago: Its Nature and the Future"[14] which was launched in March 2009. The Chagos Environment Network was the leading advocate for the reserve during the consultation period and organised two of the major petitions in favour of the reserve being set up.[15]

From 10 November 2009 to 5 March 2010, a public consultation was carried out by the UK government to take views on whether or not a marine protected area (MPA) should be established in the archipelago. Respondents were asked not only whether they believed that the MPA should be established but also to what degree they thought it should be protected, either to establish a fully no-take marine reserve or a less protected marine protected area that would allow some fishing.[11]

The response to this consultation was high, with over 250,000 people expressing their views on the issue either through the use of petitions or more lengthy written replies. Over 90% declared their support for greater marine protection, with the majority believing that it should be a no-take marine reserve.[16] The loss of the approximately £800,000 a year earned from tuna licensing was frequently raised as a possible hurdle to the designation of the marine reserve. In the final months leading up to the designation, the Bertarelli Foundation offered to fill the funding gap left by the absence of fisheries income and thereby contribute to the costs of an enforcement boat for a period of five years.[17] Following this response, the total area of the Chagos’ Exclusive Economic Zone was declared a fully no-take area,[18] with the exception of a 3-mile zone around the island of Diego Garcia.[11]

The British Foreign Secretary instructed the BIOT Commissioner to establish the Marine Protected Area on 1 April 2010, which was essentially the last day he could do so before the dissolution of Parliament prior to the 2010 British general election.[19]

Ecology and biodiversity

Ninety percent of the United Kingdom’s biodiversity lies in its Overseas Territories, and the Chagos archipelago is by far the most biodiverse marine area in the United Kingdom’s waters.[20] Its habitats include extensive shallow limestone reefs and associated environments, about 300 seamounts[21] and a deep sea trench - an underwater canyon more than 4,900 m (16,000 ft) deep.[22]


One of the most unique aspects of the Chagos marine environment is its extremely healthy and diverse coral cover, which is dense even in deep water and on the steep outer slopes of reefs. The area hosts 220 species of coral including the Ctenella chagius, a variety of brain coral believed to be endemic to the atoll, and staghorn coral which is important to protecting low-lying islands from wave erosion.[23] Chagos provides an important benchmark for coral conservation, and is a 'natural laboratory' in which we can study the functioning of these wonderfully complex ecosystems.[24]


The fish of the region are equally diverse, with at least 784 different species having been identified including the Chagos clownfish (Amphiprion chagosensis) which is endemic to the archipelago. The strictly no-take Chagos Marine Reserve has freed Chagos' fish populations from fishing pressure within the reserve's boundaries. The marine reserve is an important refuge for overfished pelagic species such as manta rays, sharks, tuna and is of particular importance for globally threatened species, such as the silky shark.[24] It is also believed, based on results of research on similar deep water and diverse underwater terrain in other parts of the world, that the deep water trench is very likely to harbour a variety of previously undiscovered species.[25]


The islands of the archipelago provide vital nesting sites for green and hawksbill turtles (Chelonia mydas and Eretmochelys imbricata). Since the hawksbill turtle is labelled ‘critically endangered’ and the green turtle ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List, the Chagos populations are considered to be of international importance. It is estimated that 300-700 hawksbill and 400-800 green turtles nest annually across the 55 islands of the archipelago.[26]


The breeding seabirds of the Chagos are considered to be of international importance.[5] The archipelago harbours eighteen different species of breeding birds and ten of its islands have been designated as Important Bird Areas (IBAs) by Birdlife International, making the region the most diverse breeding seabird community in this tropical region,[27] though the presence of human-introduced rats on several of the other islands severely hinder seabird nesting on these.

Five species are considered to be breeding in internationally significant numbers: the sooty tern (Sterna fuscata); the brown and lesser noddy (Anous stolidus and Anous tenuirostris); the red-footed booby (Sula sula) and the wedge-tailed shearwater (Puffinus pacificus).

Coconut crabs

The world’s largest terrestrial arthropod, the coconut crab (Birgus latro) can reach over one metre in leg span and a weight of up to five kilograms. Since its shells are in extremely high demand as tourist souvenirs and it is over-collected for food, the coconut crab is usually rare in the areas where it is found. It is extremely abundant on the islands of the Chagos archipelago, with an overall density in the conservation area on Diego Garcia of 298 crabs per hectare – the highest ever recorded.[5] Due to the long distances which the larvae of the coconut crab can travel, the Chagos population is considered important in replenishing numbers in other areas of the Indian Ocean.[28]

Scientific research

Scientific and conservation efforts are being undertaken to tell us more about these islands, remove invasive plant and animal species, and restore native vegetation. These initiatives are all an important contribution to the conservation of Chagos, and global biodiversity.[17] In February and March 2013, a research expedition was undertaken in the Chagos Marine Protected Area (MPA).[29] The expedition, which was sponsored by the Bertarelli Foundation, in partnership with Stanford University and the University of Western Australia, piloted an electronic tagging project to examine the feasibility of using remote technologies to monitor the movement of important pelagic species in the region. Five different types of electronic tags were deployed in this study, with a total of 99 electronic tags placed on 95 animals, along with the installation of an acoustic receiver array around two northern atolls to detect animal movements.[30]


According to a report by a scientific adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which the British Government refused to disclose, suggests that the Pacific Marlin, an ageing tug hired by London used to patrol the British Indian Ocean Territories, had been discharging waste while docked in waters shared with US Navy vessels. The Independent also revealed that American ships have been pouring waste including treated human sewage for three decades into the lagoon on Diego Garcia, which has served as a key strategic base for the US since the 1970s.[31]

Opposal to Marine Protected Area

The original Chagossians, who were deported between 1967 and 1973 to make way for a giant US nuclear air force base on the largest island, Diego Garcia, say they would in effect be barred from ever returning because the marine protection zone would stop them fishing, their main livelihood. "There would be a natural injustice. The fish would have more rights than us, the conservation groups have fallen into a trap. They are being used by the government to prevent us returning," said Roch Evenor, secretary of the UK Chagos Support Association.[32]

On December 1, 2010, WikiLeaks release a leaked US Embassy London diplomatic cable dating back to 2009 [33] exposed British and US calculations in creating the marine nature reserve. The cable relays exchanges between US Political Counselor Richard Mills and British Director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Colin Roberts, in which Roberts "asserted that establishing a marine park would, in effect, put paid to resettlement claims of the archipelago’s former residents." Richard Mills concludes:

The cable (reference ID "09LONDON1156" [34]), which records Roberts' assertion that the marine reserve was proposed by the Pew Charitable Trust, was classified as confidential and "no foreigners", and leaked as part of the Cablegate cache.

The MPA has been condemned by Mauritius, which owned the Chagos Islands before they were detached by the UK before the colony was granted independence, and which have remained under British control ever since. The Government of Mauritius initiated proceedings on 20 December 2010 against the UK Government under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to challenge the legality of the ‘marine protected area’. Mauritius considers that the UK, not being a "coastal State" under UNCLOS and international law, had no authority to purport to establish a marine protected area around the Chagos Archipelago and that the MPA was not compatible with the rights of the Chagossians.[35]

In a letter to Greenpeace by the Mauritian party Lalit de Klas said "The British government's plan for a marine protected area is a grotesquely transparent ruse designed to perpetuate the banning of the people of Mauritius and Chagos from part of their own country,"

In 2012, Greenpeace ship SY Rainbow Warrior was in the Indian ocean region and was initially blocked from making a scheduled stopover at the harbour of Mauritius. The reason for the refusal was the unconditional support that Greenpeace has given the British authorities in the controversial project of a protected marine park in the Chagos archipelago. Mauritius has officially denounced the "hypocritical" position of Greenpeace on this matter and deeply regrets that Greenpeace International chose to close its eyes on the illegal excision of the Chagos archipelago by the UK, despite its being recognised as part of Mauritius by various international groups, Port-Louis declared. Mauritius insisted that Greenpeace, which claims to be fighting for environmental protection, showed a hypocritical attitude by remaining silent over the proposed construction of a marine park.[36][37]

Thus, in official correspondence, Greenpeace International said at the outset that our support for the Marine Protected Area was, and remains, subject to the clear proviso that it should be without prejudice to the rights of the Chagossians or the sovereignty claim of Mauritius. Nothing should be taken as Greenpeace in any way implicitly condoning the existence of the Diego Garcia military base. Greenpeace has always been clear and unequivocal that the UK Government committed a terrible historic wrong against the Chagossians. We fully support their struggle for the right to return home and have been in close dialogue with representatives of the community, such as the Chagos Refugees Group.[36][37]

Chagos Marine Protected Area declared illegal

On 18 March 2015, the Permanent Court of Arbitration unanimously held that the marine protected area (MPA) which the UK purported to declare around the Chagos Archipelago in April 2010 was illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, as Mauritius had legally binding rights to fish in the waters surrounding the Chagos Archipelago, to an eventual return of the Chagos Archipelago, and to the preservation of any minerals or oil discovered in or near the Chagos Archipelago prior to its return.[3][4] The decision of the court is final and binding.[38]

The Prime Minister of Mauritius pointed out that it is the first time that the UK's conduct with regard to the Chagos Archipelago has been considered and condemned by any international court or tribunal. He qualified the ruling as an important milestone in the relentless struggle, at the political, diplomatic and other levels, of successive Governments over the years for the effective exercise by Mauritius of its sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago. The tribunal considered in detail the undertakings given by the United Kingdom to the Mauritian Ministers at the Lancaster House talks in September 1965. The UK had argued that those undertakings were not binding and had no status in international law. The Tribunal firmly rejected that argument, holding that those undertakings became a binding international agreement upon the independence of Mauritius, and have bound the UK ever since. It found that the UK's commitments towards Mauritius in relation to fishing rights and oil and mineral rights in the Chagos Archipelago are legally binding.[39][19]

See also


  1. ^ The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, which consists of multiple areas in United States territorial waters of the Pacific Ocean, is larger in aggregate; and the contiguous marine protected reserve around the Pitcairn Islands announced by the UK government in March 2015 will be larger once established.[2]


  1. ^ a b "About the Chagos marine reserve". 2010-04-01. Retrieved 2012-08-09. 
  2. ^ "World’s Largest Single Marine Reserve Created in Pacific". National Geographic (World’s Largest Single Marine Reserve Created in Pacific). 18 March 2015. Retrieved 19 March 2015. 
  3. ^ a b Owen Bowcott, Sam Jones (19 March 2015). "UN ruling raises hope of return for exiled Chagos islanders". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 March 2015. 
  4. ^ a b "Chagos Marine Protected Area Arbitration (Mauritius v. United Kingdom) (Press Release and Summary of Award)". Permanent Court of Arbitration. 19 March 2015. Retrieved 29 March 2015. 
  5. ^ a b c Reefs and islands of the Chagos Archipelago, Indian Ocean: why it is the world's largest no-take marine protected area
  6. ^ Billionaire saves marine reserve plans
  7. ^ Murray, Craig. "A key test for international law". Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  8. ^ "Cable 09LONDON1156". Wikileaks. Retrieved 12 October 2014. 
  9. ^ Owen Bowcott and John Vidal (28 January 2013). "Britain faces UN tribunal over Chagos Islands marine reserve". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 May 2014. 
  10. ^ John Vidal (13 March 2014). "Chagos islands: UK experts to carry out resettlement study". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  11. ^ a b c Consultation document, British Foreign and Commonwealth Office
  12. ^ Koldewey et al, Potential benefits to fisheries and biodiversity of the Chagos Archipelago/British Indian Ocean Territory as a no-take marine reserve
  13. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust Chagos conservation discussion paper
  14. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust Chagos: Its Nature and the Future
  15. ^ Chagos Environment Network, A Unique Scientific and Conservation Opportunity for the UK
  16. ^ British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Facilitator's Report
  17. ^ a b The Pew Charitable Trusts, Global Ocean Legacy - Chagos
  18. ^ British Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Announcement of the creation of the marine reserve
  20. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust Home page
  21. ^ Sheppard et al, Chagos Conservation and Management plan
  22. ^ National Oceanography Centre, Southampton Marine conservation in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT): science issues and opportunities
  23. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust, Corals
  24. ^ a b ZSL, Chagos Biodiversity and Threats
  25. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust, Fish
  26. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust, Turtles
  27. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust, Birds
  28. ^ Chagos Conservation Trust, Coconut crabs
  29. ^ ZSL, Open Ocean Monitoring in the Chagos Archipelago
  30. ^ Bertarelli Foundation, Tagging of Pelagics
  31. ^ Cahal Milmo (28 March 2014). "Exclusive: British Government under fire for pollution of pristine lagoon". The Independent. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  32. ^ John Vidal (29 March 2010). "Chagos Islanders attack plan to turn archipelago into protected area". The Guardian. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  33. ^ "leaked US diplomatic cable". Archived from the original on 2 December 2010. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  34. ^ Full discussion and copy of WikiLeaks cables - "HMG FLOATS PROPOSAL FOR MARINE RESERVE COVERING THE CHAGOS ARCHIPELAGO (BRITISH INDIAN OCEAN TERRITORY)". The Daily Telegraph (London). 2011-02-04. ISSN 0307-1235. OCLC 49632006. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  35. ^ "STATEMENT BY DR THE HON. PRIME MINISTER TO THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY" (PDF). Government of Mauritius. 31 May 2011. Retrieved 9 July 2012. 
  36. ^ a b "SOUVERAINETÉ DES CHAGOS: Greenpeace dissipe des doutes sur la MPA" (in français). Le Matinal. 7 October 2012. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  37. ^ a b "October 2012 update". The UK Chagos Support Association. Retrieved 1 May 2014. 
  38. ^ "Disputes over the British Indian Ocean Territory: developments since mid-2013". House of Commons Library (UK Parliament). 8 May 2015. Retrieved 13 May 2015. 
  39. ^ "Mauritius: MPA Around Chagos Archipelago Violates International Law - This Is a Historic Ruling for Mauritius, Says PM". Retrieved 23 March 2015. 

External links

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