Conservationists have hailed the creation of the largest fully protected marine reserve in the Atlantic around Ascension Island.

Chancellor Philip Hammond used his Spring Statement to announce the Government would support the Ascension Island Council’s call to designate all its waters as a marine protected area, with no fishing allowed.

Full protection of 443,000 square kilometres (171,000 square miles) of ocean around the UK Overseas Territory will safeguard green turtles, swordfish, sharks, tuna and marlin as well as frigatebirds and terns, conservationists said.

Ascension Island is home to endangered green turtles (Sam Weber/RSPB/PA)
Ascension Island is home to endangered green turtles (Sam Weber/RSPB/PA)

Before Mr Hammond’s announcement, the Government had backed a reserve closed to fishing covering half the island’s waters, but the other half was fished by long line tuna fleets.

The long line tuna fleets were known to catch sharks, turtles and seabirds as accidental “bycatch” and there were allegations of safety and human rights abuses on the vessels involved, the Blue Marine Foundation said.

The foundation, which supports the creation of ocean reserves, said when the first half of Ascension waters was proposed as a marine reserve in 2016, tougher fisheries management and human rights standards were imposed on tuna fleets.

The number of licences sold dropped to no more than two £20,000 permits a year.

But funding from science and foundations has increased and one of Blue Marine Foundation’s donors has created a £2 million endowment fund to support the island’s isolated community creating the marine reserve in 100% of Ascension’s waters.

Charles Clover, executive director of Blue Marine Foundation, said: “We congratulate the Chancellor for making an announcement of global significance in supporting the Ascension Island Council’s wonderful and far-sighted decision to create the largest fully protected marine reserve in the Atlantic.

“The reserve will give lasting protection to one of the last wild places left in the ocean, a hotspot for green turtles, sharks, swordfish, tuna and some of the world’s largest recorded marlin.”

The move will protect wildlife such as the Ascension frigatebird (Derren Fox/RSPB)
The move will protect wildlife such as the Ascension frigatebird (Derren Fox/RSPB)

Dr Johnny Briggs, officer for the Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project which also supports the creation of marine protected areas, said: “Ascension Island in the centre of the Atlantic Ocean is one of the great marine environments, home to huge tuna, marlin and populations of turtles.

“Today saw a great step towards full protection of the Ascension marine environment – as the UK Government announced its support for the local island council to designate 443,000 square kilometres of its waters as a Marine Protected Area, with no fishing allowed.”

Jonathan Hall, the RSPB’s Head of UK Overseas Territories said: “We are delighted that the Government has agreed to support the Ascension Island community in their call to create the Atlantic’s largest highly-protected marine reserve.

“Today gives Ascension Council the financial certainty they were asking for in order to protect 440,000 square kilometres of rich ocean, an area twice the size of the UK.

“This could protect the Atlantic’s second largest green turtle population, record-breaking marlin, threatened tuna, vulnerable sharks and feeding grounds for one of the world’s most important tropical seabird breeding sites.”

The move is part of the UK’s Blue Belt programme to protect millions of square kilometres of oceans in its Overseas Territories.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove said: “With a marine estate stretching across the globe, the UK is uniquely positioned to lead the way in protecting the world’s oceans and precious marine life.

“Today’s progress towards fully protecting all of Ascension Island’s waters is an important step forward in expanding our Blue Belt and protecting a third of the world’s ocean by 2030. I hope countries around the world will follow suit.”