Expedition reveals 80 new species of fish, coral and algae in the pristine waters of British overseas territory in the Pacific Ocean
Grouper fish, Variola louti (red and yellow) and Epinephelus fasciatus on the fore reef of Oeno Atoll, Pitcairn Islands, studied by the National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition team. Photograph: Enric Sala/National Geographic
An expedition has revealed the unique underwater treasures of the Pitcairn Islands. The discovery increases the pressure on the UK government to create the world’s largest marine protection area around the Pacific sea.
The islands are one of the most remote places on Earth, thousands of miles from any continent, and have escaped overfishing and pollution that has damaged many regions of the world’s oceans. Just 53 people live on the islands, many descendents of the sailors behind the famous mutiny on the Bounty in 1790, but it is the marine life that attracted National Geographic’s Pristine Seas expedition. Its results, including new species of fish, were published in the journal Plos One on Friday.
“The remoteness means it has been preserved as pristine as possible,” expedition leader Enric Sala told the Guardian. “As soon as you jump in the water and the bubbles clear you are surrounded by sharks.” Top-predators like sharks are virtually fished-out in many parts of the seas but the expedition found they dominated the marine ecosystems around the four Pitcairn Islands. Grey reef sharks were the most common predator, followed by whitetip reef sharks and black trevally, while the plant-eating fish were dominated by chubs, unicornfish and whitebar surgeonfish.
A lemonpeel angelfish (Centropyge flavissima) observed at Henderson Island, by the National Geographic Pristine Seas expedition to the Pitcairn Islands. Photograph: Enric Sala/National Geographic/Courtesy of Pristine Seas
The Pitcairn islanders have backed a plan to declare a protected zone of over 830,000 sq km around the islands, which if created today would be the biggest in the world. Sala points out that while about 15% of land has some kind of protection, only 3% of the oceans have any environmental rules. The Pitcairns are a British overseas territory and campaigners are optimistic that the UK Foreign Office’s current assessment of the proposal will see the marine park approved, particularly after US president Barack Obama pledged on 17 June to protect 780,000 km2 of ocean around uninhabited south Pacific Islands. “The arguments are pretty clear and there seems to be momentum now, so it makes sense for the UK to lead the way,” said Sala.
The shallow reefs of Henderson, Pitcairn Islands. Photograph: Enric Sala/National Geographic
However, the Environment Audit select committee of MPs criticised the government in January for failing protect the exotic species living on the string of isolated islands that make up the last vestiges of the British empire. It noted that there are more endangered species living in the Pitcairns than people.