On 6 February 2023 the team who created the vast marine protected area around the Pitcairn Islands won the prestigious Blue Parks Platinum award for exceptional marine wildlife conservation at the IMPAC5 conference in Vancouver. Representatives from the Blue Parks Science Council, an international council of marine conservation experts that determines which MPAs meet the award criteria, and President of Marine Conservation Institute, Dr Lance Morgan, announced the award for Pitcairn Islands MPA, which will receive US $8,000 and join a growing network of 27 awarded Blue Parks around the global ocean that have met the highest science-based standards for conservation effectiveness.
We spoke to Michele Christian (Division Manager) and Melva Evans (MPA Officer) from the Division of Environmental Conservation and Natural Resources on Pitcairn about the years of work that led to the Platinum Award.
Watch the interview:
Michele, why is this award such a big deal?
“For us it’s been a long journey that began in 2012 when National Geographic’s Pristine Seas expedition showed the wonderful marine life around Pitcairn. Shortly after that Heather Bradner and Elizabeth Whitebread from Pew got in touch to talk about whether Pitcairn could create a large Marine Protected Area (MPA). We knew that 20-30 years ago large ships from Japan, Korea and Taiwan had been fishing in our waters, but we had no way of monitoring what was going on, and we rely heavily on fishing for our people. We were worried our fish would be taken and we wanted to make sure that didn’t happen.
I thought an MPA was an amazing idea, but we didn’t know what it would entail. How could a tiny island like Pitcairn protect such a huge area?
Over the years since then we’ve worked with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Pew, and many others to get where we are today. It’s been a real team effort. We’ve been back and forth to the UK to present the ideas of an MPA to the British Government and in 2016 the UK designated an 842,000 km2 MPA around Pitcairn.
I was amazed when Melva called me to say a tiny community like Pitcairn had won such an important award.”
Location marker on the highest point on pitcairn. Photo by Murray Roberts
What was the most important part of your work as you planned the MPA?
“Without doubt it was the work we did with the local community to make sure everyone was consulted and involved in the decision-making process. Many of us on Pitcairn rely on fishing and we’ve arranged that local people can fish out to 12 nautical miles from the islands – it’s a cultural right that was essential for us to get people to agree to the idea of the MPA. Beyond 12 nm our MPA is a no-take zone, so fishing is prohibited as would be any future activities like deep-sea mining.
We were also very careful with how we consulted. We thought carefully about how every message was worded and kept our conversations open and transparent. Some people in the community were concerned that we might be restricted in things we used to do, but the cultural right to fish helped put those worries aside.”
How do you know what’s happening across this vast ocean area?
“We get monthly reports of vessel activities, including any fishing, from Ocean Minds who use AIS satellite monitoring. We’re seeing close to 100% compliance with the no-take zone.”
Now you’ve won this important award what are your next steps?
“We want to challenge ourselves to do more and do better. For instance, we’ve nearly finished building a marine science base with a laboratory, office, and accommodation for visiting scientists. We want this to become a new way that scientists and students can come and work on our amazing marine environment. There’s so much to do and discover here.”
Pitcairn marine science base, photo by Murray Roberts
How did you pull the plans for the marine science base together?
“I have family links in Scotland, so I got in touch with scientists from the Marine Alliance for Science and Technology Scotland (MASTS) at the University of St Andrews. They’ve been advising us on what we should build. Now we have the building up it’s time to get the accommodation, office and labs finished inside. Scientists at CEFAS in the UK have been working with us on the equipment we should buy to put in the laboratory. We think we can have things ready in the next few months.
We want to move with the times and the marine science base is going to help us do this. It also proves our commitment and dedication to marine science as a vital part of our MPA management in the future. I’m excited to think about the scientists and students from around the world who will come to Pitcairn and how the local community can get involved in the work and get trained in new skills.”
Melva Evans the MPA Officer on Pitcairn remembered the work over 10 years as they built the case for the MPA.
“Some people don’t see the need for MPAs. They say that on Pitcairn we have so few people and so many fish why do we need one? But I say if we don’t protect what we have we might lose it. I remember going to Ducie 50 years and there were so many sharks, but now there aren’t nearly so many. We don’t know what’s happened to them.”
What do you think persuaded the UK government to create the MPA?
“I remember going to London with Simon Young, who’s now the Mayor on Pitcairn, back in 2013 and 2014. I met Zac Goldsmith and other ministers in the government, and we made our case. There was lots of discussion, but I think the British realised early on that by creating such a huge no-take zone they’d go a long way to protecting 30% of their waters by 2030.
I think Pitcairn has always been a community that has to look to the future. We gave women the right to vote in our elections back in 1838 and school was compulsory for both girls and boys.”
Did you think you’d win a Blue Parks Award?
“We didn’t think we had a chance! I’m just so proud. We’ve gone from nothing to having this protected ocean.”