Tristan da Cunha becomes leader in ocean conservation

A largely unknown archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic to host the fourth-largest marine protected area

Tristan da Cunha, the main and namesake island of the world's most remote archipelago. Brian Gatwicke, Flickr
7 April 2021
7 April 2021

Rising from the Atlantic swells, halfway between South Africa and Argentina, the wind-lashed archipelago of Tristan da Cunha is a place few have heard of, and even fewer have managed to visit.

Some 260 people call this, the world’s most remote island community, home. Most are descended from British soldiers garrisoned on Tristan’s main island in 1816 to prevent it being used as a base for the French to rescue Napoleon Bonaparte from exile on St. Helena.

Now, this community is on a different mission: designating its waters as a Marine Protected Area (MPA). Tristan da Cunha’s 12-member Island Council is currently working to ratify the commitment it made last November to ban harmful activities like bottom-trawling fishing and deep-water mining from its Exclusive Economic Zone. At almost 700,000 square kilometers, the protected area will cover 91 percent of the massive swath of ocean under Tristan’s jurisdiction, making it the largest ‘no-take’ zone in the Atlantic as well as a significant benefactor to marine conservation.

Courtesy of Tristan da Cunha
Courtesy of Tristan da Cunha

“It’s an enormously important area for the South Atlantic because it is in the conversion zone between subtropical and southern ocean currents,” says Jonathan Hall, head of the U.K. Overseas Territories unit at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which is part of a coalition supporting the U.K.’s Blue Belt Programme. With funding of GBP 27 million (USD 37.5 million), the initiative aims to support the U.K.’s 14 far-flung overseas territories by safeguarding and sustainably managing their marine environments. 

“These are particularly rich waters,” says Hall, “and as one of the very few islands in a pretty much landless ocean, a hotspot for breeding and marine life, be it sharks, whales, or seabirds.”

The MPA will bring Britain’s total overseas protected marine areas to 4.3 million square kilometers, at a time when the need to conserve the world’s oceans has become clearer and more urgent than ever. According to a new study in Nature, doing so will not only strengthen biodiversity and increase food supply, but also sequester vast amounts of carbon dioxide – destructive practices like bottom trawling release as much carbon dioxide as the entire global aviation industry.

Scientists say 30 percent of the world’s marine areas need to be protected – a massive increase from the current 7 percent. So far, the European Economic Community, the U.S. and Canada have joined the U.K. in pledging to meet that target by 2030.

Northern rockhopper penguins, a species native to the southern Indian and Atlantic oceans that inhabit the archipelago. Andy Schofield
Northern rockhopper penguins, a species native to the southern Indian and Atlantic oceans that inhabit the archipelago. Andy Schofield

Island Life

The array of wildlife species to be found in Tristan is richly diverse, mostly endangered and often exclusive to the islands’ unique ecosystem. Land and sea birds abound, like the yellow-nosed albatross, the spectacled petrel, the Wilkins bunting and the Inaccessible Island rail – the world’s smallest flightless bird. 

Tristan also hosts the world’s largest breeding colony of northern rockhopper penguins, another endangered species, while rare Shepherd’s beaked whales, southern right whales and fin whales frequent the surrounding waters. The southernmost island, Gough, supports 80 percent of the world’s population of sub-Antarctic fur seals, as well as a colony of elephant seals. 

Aside from banning bottom-trawling, committing to the MPA means that islanders will also no longer sell licenses for the fishing of tuna. That measure, says Hall, will protect both southern bluefin tuna and tropical tuna, as well as the birds that follow long-line fishing boats, swooping down to eat discarded offcuts and getting caught in cabling. 

A National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition diver working offshore Tristan da Cunha Island. Roger Horrocks, National Geographic
A National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition diver working offshore Tristan da Cunha Island. Roger Horrocks, National Geographic

“Long-line fisheries for catching tuna bring a risk of drowning seabirds,” says Hall, “so that is another risk that has been greatly reduced.”

Another species that will benefit from the fishing ban is the blue shark, one of the Atlantic’s great ocean wanderers, making journeys of up to 9,200 kilometers. “It’s the most heavily fished shark in the wild,” says Hall, “with millions of them taken annually, mostly as by-catch. We’ve recently discovered that Tristan waters are a pupping area for large female sharks coming from unknown areas around the South Atlantic to breed here. So it’s potentially a breeding hot spot for a very large area, and (the MPA) can make a meaningful difference for parts of their life cycle.”

Ship Shape

Just 10 years ago, Hall recalls, a freighter on its way to Singapore crashed into Tristan’s Nightingale Island, releasing 800 tons of fuel into the water. Islanders spent weeks rescuing, de-oiling and rehabilitating thousands of rockhopper penguins nesting there. As such, Tristan’s Island Council has also enacted a law requiring all cargo vessels to keep 25 nautical miles away from the shores of its four main islands. “Shipping has been a threat,” says Hall, “so hopefully this will reduce the risk of collision, shipwrecking and sinking near the islands.” 

A lobster fisherman brings up his traps. National Geographic
A lobster fisherman brings up his traps. National Geographic

However, in a statement last November, chief islander James Glass acknowledged that the MPA’s economic impact on Tristan’s residents will be a challenge. “For example, while I recognise that banning bottom-trawling will be good for stock management and the health of the ocean floor, it also leads to the loss of much needed revenue,” he said.

The close-knit community’s main source of income is derived from its sustainable lobster fishery.  Exports of the Tristan rock lobster, which is considered a delicacy in countries as far away as China and the U.S., account for between 80 and 90 percent of the territory’s earnings. Based in a single settlement, Edinburgh of the Seven Seas, locals also grow vegetables and raise a few head of livestock. A few tourists do visit, but they are required to book their trip a year in advance and have permission from the community to come.

With no airstrip and the only way in and out being a six-day sea journey from Cape Town, South Africa, Tristan also relies on fishing ventures to boost traffic to and from the island, Glass said, “so curbs on fishing mean curbs on our link with the outside world.”

However, he recognizes the community’s responsibility as stewards of “a precious environment. We’re proud that we can play a key role in preserving the health of the oceans.”

A sea bird flying near Tristan da Cunha Island. Dan Myers, National Geographic
A sea bird flying near Tristan da Cunha Island. Dan Myers, National Geographic

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