Ocean Correspondent, for the Times of London
This article was originally published on Frank Pope's webiste.
Here's the full version of a story of mine that appeared in the Sunday Times today. I'm posting it here because it's a remarkable tale that in the paper got mushed together with the lightly-related news that a Belizian coral reef has been 'saved' by a billionairess ('Beauty and the Reef: billionairess dives in to save coral', behind a paywall).
More than two hundred years ago the mutineers of HMS Bounty used the extreme isolation of Pitcairn Island to hide from the wrath of the Royal Navy. Now their descendants plan to take advantage of their seclusion and turn the surrounding waters into the world's largest marine reserve.
The South Seas paradise they sought has been plagued by murder and sexual depravity ever since they arrived. But beneath the waves, seclusion has allowed the marine environment to escape the overfishing and pollution that has impacted so much of the ocean.
Like the seven generations before them, the forty-two islanders who live on the tiny volcanic rock will still supplement their diet with fish, but they have voted to turn away any new applications for commercial fishing ventures in favour of the potential they see from adventurous tourists and visiting scientists.
An expedition to Pitcairn by the National Geographic Society and the Pew Environment Group in March this year surveyed the full extent of these pristine waters for the first time. During 450 hours spent underwater, scientists found a thriving, well-developed coral reef at a depth of 75 metres – the deepest ever discovered.
"The clarity of the water is extraordinary," said Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence at the Society and the leader of the survey. "This is one of the best-preserved ecosystems on the planet, and many of its species are only found there."
Cameras lowered over the side of the ship into deeper waters observed rare creatures like the false catshark and rich coral gardens untouched by trawlers. At a depth of 382 metres plant life was detected. If confirmed it would be the deepest that a photosynthetic organism has ever been found.
"In only sixteen drops of the camera we found eight deepwater species of fish that are new to science," said Dr Sala.
Around Ducie Island, the most southerly coral atoll in the world, sharks and other top predators made up two thirds of the biomass of fish on the reef. Such a high proportion has very rarely been detected, and indicates an ecosystem that is almost entirely undisturbed.
Without fishing, corals are far more resilient to the warming waters that threaten reefs worldwide. A 1971 expedition to Ducie found many corals had been killed by a warming event, but this year's expedition found that the corals have recovered 'spectacularly'.
Oeno Island had many fewer sharks, an indication that it had suffered some fishing pressure.
"In the seventies we used to get a few ships coming in from Asia, decks covered in drying sharks fins. We haven't seen them for a while. They said it was getting unprofitable for them," said Steve Christian, a direct descendent of the leader of the Bounty mutineers, Fletcher Christian.
Although diverse and thriving the waters are not rich in nutrients, making ecosystems fragile and unable to support commercial fishing. In 2005 a tuna fishing fleet operating in Pitcairn's waters caught five hundred times less than in French Polynesia. Other proposals to fish for snapper were also judged unviable because of the extreme distances involved.
While their total land area of the islands is only around 47 square kilometres their Exclusive Economic Zone covers 836,108 square kilometres. The Island Council recently voted unanimously in favour of banning commercial fishing from the whole EEZ. Subsistence fishing by islanders would continue to be allowed within ten nautical miles of Pitcairn itself, as well as around '40 mile reef', a nearby undersea mountain.
A Foreign Office Spokesman confirmed that they were considering the plan which would create largest fully-protected marine reserve in the world, surpassing that which they created around the British-controlled Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean in 2010. In a recent white paper, the government committed to preserving the rich natural heritage of Britain's overseas territories through protected areas.
The principal challenge is defending such a remote reserve against illegal fishing. Dr Sala proposes that teams of online volunteers could monitor live satellite images for the presence of unregistered vessels which could then be apprehended when next in waters with a naval presence.
"Pitcairn is a rare piece of undisturbed ocean," said Alistair Gammell of the Pew Environment Group. "It has great value as a scientific reference site, as well as a global biological treasure, and should be protected."
Tourism currently makes up 80 per cent of local incomes, said Michele Christian, the director of Natural Resources for Pitcairn. Local artworks, lobsters and commemorative stamps are sold to the dozen or so cruise ships that pass every year. Honey from the island is famously pure, and is reported to be a favourite of the Queen's. The UK spends an average of £1.5 million a year supporting the island.
"We didn't know what we had in our waters until we were showed a documentary made by the expedition. Now we have a greater appreciation of what a jewel they are," said Mrs Christian. "Declaring this reserve would put us on the map and help us be a bit more recognised. We're quite an unknown destination and this could help our tourism."
It would also give the island a chance to move on from the sex scandal that saw most of the island's men locked up on the island in a jail of their own making in 2006. These days a policeman, a social worker, a teacher, a doctor and a government representative from 'off island' live on Pitcairn. To guard against impropriety, each is required to come with a partner.
Including these ten outsiders, Pitcairn's population is 52, down from a high of 250 in 1936. To reach the nearest airport takes two days by ship.
"If tourism could increase jobs and income then it might just attract people to come and repopulate," said Mrs Christian.