Britain is now perilously close to having the largest amount of protected ocean of any country in the world ... while most would agree this probably isn't the greenest Government ever, it is certainly the bluest.
The UK Government is to create the world's biggest fully protected marine reserve encompassing over 830,000 square kilometres of ocean in the South Pacific - an area about 3.5 times the size of the UK.
It will cover the entire marine area of the Pitcairn Islands British Overseas Territory, apart from waters within 12 miles of Pitcairn itself, and taking in the waters around the smaller uninhabited islands of Henderson, Ducie, and Oeno.
Collectively the Territory includes just 47 square kilometres of land, and the total resident population comprises just 56 inhabitants.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, chose to announce the move in the Budget, delighting conservationists the world over owing to the area's rich biodiversity.
Pitcairn's waters host some of the best-preserved marine ecosystems on the planet and are of globally significant biological value. Over 1,200 marine species have been recorded around Pitcairn, including whales and dolphins, 365 species of fish, turtles, seabirds and corals.
Forty-eight of these species are globally threatened - such as the critically endangered hawksbill turtle, and some are found nowhere else on Earth - such as the Pitcairn angelfish.
With the designation of the marine reserve, Pitcairn's waters will become off-limits to all extractive and damaging activities, offering protection from overfishing and illegal pirate fishing, as well as deep-sea mining exploration, pollution and climate change.
Success for local residents and campaigners
"The people of Pitcairn are extremely excited about designation of the world's largest marine reserve in our vast and unspoiled waters of the Pitcairn Islands, including Ducie, Oeno and Henderson Islands", according to a statement from the Pitcairn Island Council, which has joined with conservation groups to lobby for the protected status.
Conservationists and the Island's residents have been campaigning for the creation of a reserve around Pitcairn since 2013. In February 2015 a coalition of over 100 conservation and environmental organisations and scientists launched the Great British Oceans campaign to encourage the Government to create fully protected marine reserves in the UK Overseas Territories, principally around the Pitcairn Islands, Ascension Island in the Atlantic and the South Sandwich Islands in the Southern Ocean.
The coalition, led by the RSPB, The Pew Charitable Trusts, the Zoological Society of London, the Blue Marine Foundation, the Marine Conservation Society, Greenpeace UK and the National Geographic Society praises the creation of the Pitcairn marine reserve as a monumental step for ocean conservation.
Jonathan Hall, Head of UK Overseas Territories for the RSPB, said: "We're delighted that the Government has today granted the Pitcairners wish to see a marine reserve declared in their waters."
The announcement, he added, "builds the network of marine reserves around the UK's Territories, and we hope that this achievement will heighten ambition to see further protection around other Territories, such as Ascension."
Members of the Great British Oceans coalition "now look forward to working with the Government on expanding the UK's marine reserve network throughout other Overseas Territories, and the possibility of designating reserves in the waters of Ascension Island and the South Sandwich Islands in the near future."
UK is the world's 5th biggest ocean 'owner'
Although the UK is a small country in a big world, its colonial history places it among the biggest ocean owners thanks to its 14 of Overseas Territories, whose marine estate adds up to 6.8 million square kilometres, over twice the size of India, and nearly 30 times the size of the UK itself.
The Overseas Territories are also a treasure trove of biodiversity, containing 94% of its wildlife species, including many that are endemic - found nowhere else in the world.
The announcement of the designation of a Pitcairn marine reserve means that the UK now has the two largest marine reserves in the world, the second largest being the Chagos marine reserve created around the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010.
This puts Britain virtually level-pegging with the USA, who top the table for the most marine area fully protected following the expansion of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument by President Obama last year.
The designation of the Pitcairn marine reserve means that the UK Government is now fully protecting nearly a quarter (22%) of waters under British jurisdiction, and has increased the global fully protected area by a quarter.
Excepting today's announcement, only around 3% of the world's ocean has any protection at all, and less than 1% is classified as ‘fully protected'. This is despite commitments from 194 countries to protect 10% of the entire global ocean by 2020.
A plethora of praise
Matt Rand, Director of Pew's Global Ocean Legacy project, which advocates for establishment of the world's great marine parks, commented: "The United Kingdom is the caretaker of more than 6 million square kilometres of ocean-the fifth-largest marine area of any country. British citizens are playing a vital role in ensuring the health of our seas. The Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve will build a refuge of untouched ocean to protect and conserve a wealth of marine life."
Charles Clover, Chairman of the Blue Marine Foundation, said: "Declaring a marine reserve around Pitcairn is a visionary thing to do and the right thing to do. With Pitcairn, Britain is now perilously close to having the largest amount of protected ocean of any country in the world. This is a fantastic achievement and while most would agree this probably isn't the greenest Government ever, it is certainly now the bluest Government ever."
Paul Rose, Expedition Leader, National Geographic Pristine Seas, said: "Ocean leadership like this from our Government is exactly right: It protects the pristine waters of our Overseas Territories, sets an example to the rest of the world, giving hope and encouragement to future generations. Thank you UK Government!"
Sam Fanshawe, Chief Executive, Marine Conservation Society said: "Designation of the Pitcairn Islands as one of the world's largest Marine Reserves is a significant step toward addressing the deficit in global ocean conservation. It's good to see the UK Government showing some leadership in marine conservation issues at the international level!"
John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, said: "This is good news for the marine environment and a positive sign from the Government about wanting to improve the health of the world's oceans. This decision will be an opportunity to create a sanctuary for marine life to thrive, and unlocks the possibility for the UK to play a global leadership role in ocean conservation."
Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, whose Fish Fight television programmes advocated greater marine protection in both UK waters and British Overseas Territories, said: "Today's announcement shows this Government really does mean business when it comes to marine conservation.
It is an excellent step forwards towards better protection of our seas and one that will make a genuine difference in a globally important marine habitat.
It's clear that the British public care hugely about protecting our marine life, and so it's great to know that our Government is ready to protect some of the most unspoiled parts of the global oceans for the benefit of future generations. And it surely paves the way for even more protection of our seas, both overseas and here at home."
The Ocean Elders, a collective of global leaders including H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, Sir Richard Branson, Jackson Browne, James Cameron, Dr. Rita Colwell, Jean-Michel Cousteau, Dr. Sylvia Earle, Jose Maria Figueres, Graeme Kelleher, Sven Lindblad, Her Majesty Queen Noor, Nainoa Thompson, Ted Turner, and Captain Don Walsh, said:
"We are delighted that the UK Government is showing global leadership through its designation of a marine reserve in the Pitcairn Group of Islands. This will offer protection to some of the most pristine waters and coral reefs on Earth. We urge other countries to follow suit and create additional large and protected ocean areas in the face of escalating climate change and constant threats to ocean health."
Principal source: RSPB.