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Descendants Of The Bounty Mutineers To Ban Tuna Fishing

On land, nature reserves are ten a penny. About one-sixth of the earth’s land surface is protected in one way or another. Reserves at sea are much scarcer, covering, at most, 3%. But a proposal to designate the Exclusive Economic Zone around the Pitcairn islands in the South Pacific as a marine protected area (MPA) may help redress the balance.

The British dependency of Pitcairn (population, 65) is home to descendants of the Bounty mutineers. The idea of a reserve, promoted by the American-based Pew Charitable Trusts, is to ban tuna fishing in 830,000 square km (320,000 square miles) of sea around Pitcairn. The immediate cost to Pitcairn’s economy would be trivial: a meager USD 30,000 in license fees for tuna fishing forgone each year. In return for closing its tuna fishing ground, the world’s smallest democracy would create the world’s biggest MPA, and hope to gain alternative income by drawing tourists. The Great Barrier Reef is reckoned to bring in about $4 billion from tourism for Australia each year.

Hopes are high that the British government will endorse the idea. Pitcairn relies on annual British subsidies equivalent to £50,000 (USD 81,000) per inhabitant. And the MPA plan is broadly welcomed by islanders. Simon Young, Pitcairn’s deputy mayor, says it has “always been a seafaring nation, protective of its marine environment”. If Britain enacted legislation for the reserve, it would not face local opposition as it did when it designated a reserve around the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean in 2010. Locals had been forced out in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make way for an American base; the reserve was seen as another way to stop them ever returning.

The Pitcairn islands could scarcely be more remote, with New Zealand 4,800km (3,000 miles) to the west and Ecuador 6,000km to the east. Arguably, this isolation prevents overfishing. The worst overfishing takes place in what Peter Jones, a geographer, calls “metropolitan seas” near larger populations. It is, he says, politically easier to designate an MPA in a remote area than where fisheries are heavily used. Britain’s struggle to create significant MPAs around its own coast underlines the point.