13 Nov 2020

World’s remotest islands become one of largest wildlife sanctuaries

Today, UK overseas territory Tristan da Cunha – a remote island chain in the South Atlantic – has been declared a Marine Protection Zone, safeguarding habitat for millions of seabirds, fish and mammals.

A courtship display between Tristan Albatrosses (Critically Endangered) © Andy Schofield
A courtship display between Tristan Albatrosses (Critically Endangered) © Andy Schofield
By Jessica Law

Out of sight doesn’t always mean out of mind. Despite being the remotest inhabited island chain on earth, Tristan da Cunha’s status as a pristine wildlife haven has not gone unnoticed. Today, a Marine Protection Zone almost three times the size of the UK has been established thanks to international collaboration* between governments, NGOs and the local islanders, instigated by the Tristan da Cunha government and the RSPB (BirdLife in the UK). Stretching across 687,247km2  of land and sea, 90% of the marine area will be a complete “no-take zone”, where fishing and any other extractive activities are strictly limited.

Beccy Speight, the RSPB’s chief executive, said: “This is a story two decades in the making, starting with the RSPB and Government of Tristan da Cunha commencing a conservation partnership, and culminating in the creation of this globally important protected area. The new Tristan Marine Protection Zone will be the biggest no-take area in the Atlantic.”

“Tristan da Cunha is a place like no other. The waters that surround this remote UK Overseas Territory are some of the richest in the world. Tens of millions of seabirds soar above the waves, penguins and seals cram onto the beaches, threatened sharks breed offshore and mysterious whales feed in the deep-water canyons. From today, we have massively bolstered efforts to keep this part of the world pristine for future generations.”


An impressive 25 seabird species breed on this isolated archipelago, four of which are unique to the islands as well as being globally threatened: the Tristan Albatross Diomedea dabbenena (Critically Endangered), Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche chlororhynchos and Atlantic Petrel Pterodroma incert (both Endangered), and the Spectacled Petrel Procellaria conspicillata (Vulnerable). It also includes the World Heritage Site of Gough Island: a renowned albatross stronghold and arguably one of the most important seabird islands in the world, where a large-scale restoration programme is currently underway to remove invasive “mega-mice”.

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None of this could have happened without the advocacy and collaboration of the Tristan islanders themselves, who are proud to lead the way as nature guardians in the relatively unprotected Atlantic Ocean. James Glass, Tristan da Cunha Chief Islander, said: “Our life on Tristan da Cunha has always been based around our relationship with the sea, and that continues today. The Tristan community is deeply committed to conservation: on land, we’ve already declared protected status for more than half our territory. But the sea is our vital resource, for our economy and ultimately for our long-term survival. That’s why we’re fully protecting 90% of our waters – and we’re proud that we can play a key role in preserving the health of the oceans.”

In a world full of eco-anxiety, this is one of the most inspiring environmental announcements of the year. It will have a big positive impact not just on the ecosystem and local community, but on the health of the entire planet for future generations. A recent study found that banning fishing in 5 per cent or more of the ocean would boost global fish catches by at least 20 per cent in future. Furthermore, the wildlife sanctuary also ties into the wider global goal to secure protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, in order to tackle the climate and biodiversity crises.

Tristan da Cunha is 2,400km from the nearest land. It takes longer to sail there from Cape Town than it took Apollo 11 to reach the Moon. But despite its remoteness, today’s news is a win for all of us.

*The creation of the Marine Protection Zone is only possible thanks to the far-sighted leadership of the Tristan da Cunha Government and the support of an international partnership. The RSPB led work on the ground with the local community to enable their visionary decision-making, working with the UK Government Blue Belt Programme, National Geographic Pristine Seas and the Great British Oceans coalition. British Antarctic Survey, University of Plymouth and the Natural History Museum also provided key scientific support to the Tristan da Cunha Government.