£400,000 to save Ascension's wildlife is a drop in the ocean
A remote pebble in the Atlantic, the British overseas territory is a haven for nature. But its waters are under threat; giving them protected status would cost us little
The Sunday Times, 12th April 2015
As your plane nears Ascension Island, a speck becomes visible on the South Atlantic Ocean. Eight hundred miles from anywhere, the island’s distinctive green mountain volcano rises up to break the seemingly endless blue horizon. It’s no wonder the Admiralty decided in 1815 that this island was a good place to station a garrison with the object of ensuring that Napoleon, imprisoned on St Helena after the Battle of Waterloo, did not make a bid for freedom.
The garrison has long since departed but the island is still of vital interest. It was used as a staging and refuelling post during the Falklands War and remains of crucial importance today, not only as a supply route to the Falklands but also as an international tracking and communications centre.
There is another reason why Ascension is important, however — it has tremendous environmental value. Between November and May each year endangered green turtles lay their eggs on the island’s beaches — it is the turtles’ second largest nesting site in the Atlantic. It is also an important haven for sea birds, including the Ascension frigate bird, the sooty tern, the masked booby and the red and yellow-billed tropicbird.
In recent years the seas that surround Ascension have come under threat from fishing, particularly by Chinese and Taiwanese vessels. The Ascension fishery, as it operated between 2010 and 2013, seems to have been poorly managed. Licences were sold to longlining vessels that were permitted to fish and then leave the island’s waters without ever touching port.
Although the practice was officially banned, vessels were suspected of shark finning, the removal of a shark’s fin when it is still alive, leaving it to suffer a slow, agonising death. Conservationists reported that previously abundant shark species had largely disappeared from inshore waters over this period.
In 2013 fishing was suspended and the island now has a new administrator. The key question is: should the fishery be reopened under new management or should the waters around the island become a marine protected area (MPA)?
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and other campaigners wish to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past by reopening the fishery. They believe the seas surrounding the island should become an ocean sanctuary extending from 12 miles offshore to the full extent of Ascension’s exclusive fishing zone to cover an area of more than 170,000 square miles. They say this could be effectively monitored and enforced at minimal expense — less than £400,000 a year including (crucially) the cost of an enforcement vessel.
I firmly believe this is the best choice if we are to protect Ascension’s fragile and diverse environment. There is also a recent precedent. In his latest budget the chancellor, George Osborne, confirmed that, subject to certain conditions being met, the ocean around the Pitcairn Islands in the Pacific, another of Britain’s 14 overseas territories and home to the Bounty mutineers, would be designated as a marine protected area, totalling 322,000 square miles, with a ban on commercial fishing.
The decision was welcomed by conservationists the world over. I had campaigned for the Pitcairn designation, which is what brought me to Ascension to see if there was a possibility of following suit there. There are a number of marine protected areas taking shape in the Pacific, but there are far fewer in the Atlantic.
The important thing now is to be sure, as with Pitcairn, that the Ascension islanders support the move. I had a chance to meet several members of the Ascension council, which represents the island’s 800 inhabitants.
At the local level the jury is still out on the issue of declaring a marine protected area around Ascension. The real question is cost. One council member, Larry Poultney, who has lived on Ascension since 2006, put it to me bluntly: “We’ve been following the Pitcairn situation closely. We know George Osborne has proclaimed a Pitcairn MPA. But has he put money on the table? The answer is no, isn’t it?”
My firm view is that putting money on the table is precisely what the chancellor should now be ready to do. The environmental case is strong. And what better time could there be to declare an Ascension Island marine protected area than the upcoming bicentenary?
Declaring an Ascension MPA could also have an important economic payoff for the islanders. The island’s flora and fauna, as well as its historical sites and buildings, are an obvious tourist draw. I couldn’t help wondering whether Ascension is fully exploiting this tourist potential. It takes nine days to sail to Pitcairn from Cape Town; but there are twice-weekly military flights to the Falklands from RAF Brize Norton that refuel at Ascension. If more space were made available on these for non-military personnel then the island’s economy would surely benefit.
On the morning of my last day I visited the astonishing Letterbox Peninsula in the southeast corner of the island. We drove along a mountainous track to a vertiginous clifftop, where we could look out across a narrow strip of water towards a rock stack known as Boatswain Bird Island. As the name implied, the whole place was alive with sea birds of every kind. This is one of the most important nesting areas for the masked booby in the southern hemisphere. But we saw the brown booby and the red-footed booby as well; and the fairy tern, the storm petrel and the yellow and red-billed tropicbird.
“Healthy sea bird populations like these depend crucially on the health of the surrounding ocean,” Sam Weber, the island’s chief conservation scientist, told me as I stood there overawed.
I spent my last evening on Long Beach, a stone’s throw from Georgetown, watching the giant green turtles haul themselves out of the surf and up onto the sand, which was cratered like a war zone with turtle nests. Each female lays 100-120 eggs. They do that five or six times during the season, because only one in a thousand hatchlings will survive.
I watched spellbound as a turtle laid its clutch of eggs, then used its rear flippers to bury them. Early next morning I went back to the beach to see the last remaining turtles heaving themselves back to the glorious ocean.
I was lucky, during my visit, to be accompanied by Sacha Cleminson of the RSPB. On the flight home his words echoed in my mind. “In an age of heartbreaking marine destruction, an Ascension ocean sanctuary might offer a corner of the Atlantic for nature to recover and thrive,” he told me.
“Without help, the people of Ascension Island won’t be able to make such a vision materialise.”
The second volume of Stanley Johnson’s memoir, Stanley I Resume, is published by the Robson Press at £18.75