What is the future for the MPA?

Future opportunities and challenges

Green turtle hatchling - Sam Weber
Green turtle hatchling - Sam Weber

Dive Deeper

Forever is a long time...

The MPA designation is a commitment to provide permanent protection for the marine biodiversity around Ascension whatever the future holds. It is impossible to predict accurately all the changes that will come, but this section is an attempt to scan the horizon for the major issues likely to affect our MPA.

Vessels visiting Ascension - Alamy
Vessels visiting Ascension - Alamy

Some may be opportunities, others challenges. Since many of the challenges will be faced by other large MPAs and remote islands, the need to address them will create opportunities for Ascension to become a testing ground for innovative solutions and encourage global partnerships. It is hoped that by anticipating future changes and applying the principles laid down in this Management Plan, the Ascension MPA will be able to seize the opportunities and surmount the challenges.

Future challenges and opportunities

The MPA covers the entire Ascension EEZ, but many fish, turtle and seabird species range beyond its boundaries. This means that some species can only be protected for part of their lifecycles and fishing effort for target species will largely be displaced to outside of the MPA. Ascension is providing the maximum protection it can, but without tighter regulation or the establishment of connected protected areas in the wider Atlantic Ocean, some species will continue to face threats.

The MPAs and Marine Management Zones created around Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha through the Blue Belt Programme provide an excellent opportunity for the UK Government to cement its position as a world leader in marine protection by pioneering ocean-scale protection through a combination of connected MPAs and enhanced management measures in Areas Beyond National Jurisdictions (ABNJs). The need to look beyond national borders has been recognised and a new international treaty is being developed under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea to safeguard marine biodiversity in ABNJs. The UK is already playing a leading role in these negotiations and its major influence in the South Atlantic could make it the perfect stage on which to demonstrate this new phase of ocean protection.

Ascension’s greatest asset is its location. Its position at the centre of the Atlantic has made it strategically important for the military and communications industry and science could be the next phase of the island’s evolution. Interest in the ocean and climate science has never been higher and, whilst resources are always stretched, opportunities to carry out research can actually be the limiting factor. There is no reason why in this context Ascension couldn’t become the Mauna Loa of the Atlantic.

Ascension could provide a convenient jumping-off point for research into deep ocean ecosystems, global processes in the absence of land-based pressures and the effectiveness of oceanic MPAs. These are very active areas of scientific research and BIOT has successfully demonstrated the demand for such study sites and the benefits this can bring. Ascension’s remote location, relatively pristine seas and stable political system make it an attractive option for researchers, and several international institutions already have established links with the island. This could be further enhanced by a restored South Atlantic Airbridge providing frequent direct flights to the UK, a well-designed permit system and improved on-island accommodation and laboratory facilities. Ascension would benefit from a raised international profile, an improved knowledge base to guide management and the channelling of scientific grant funding into the island through income from visitors, facilities hire and research permit charges.

Science is a collaborative process and Ascension will need to forge links with academic institutions and other MPA management authorities. The members of the Scientific Advisory Committee will be crucial to achieving this. Ascension is one of five overseas territories that are developing their marine protection as part of the Blue Belt Programme and will hopefully become a member of the international Big Ocean network of large MPAs. There is huge variation in the ocean environments and the challenges they face across these networks, but also common themes that lend themselves to knowledge sharing and the development of joint projects that pool resources and increase the benefits and impacts.

Carrying out surveillance and enforcement of 440,000km2 of the ocean is a significant challenge and, even if hard assets such as vessels and aircraft were available, they would struggle to provide an effective response to all incidents of illegal fishing or other infringements of the MPA regulations. These problems are common to all large MPAs and high seas fisheries creating pressure that is driving researchers, NGOs, Government Agencies and private companies to collaborate and push against the boundaries of current technology.

We don’t yet have the solution and in the short-term, some illegal activity will likely go unchallenged. However new capabilities allowing rapid, high-resolution satellite images to be taken, or for unidentified vessels behaving suspiciously to be tracked to their next port are being developed in tandem with the legal framework to act on the intelligence and these will provide the tools necessary for effective enforcement. Ascension needs to be an early adopter of these new technologies and preferably play a part in developing them through collaborations with pioneers in the field.

Climate change is a current threat to the MPA, but one that is also predicted to increase in the future and may exacerbate the impact of other threats. It is so profound that it may call into question the entire premise of protected areas, even ones the size of the Ascension Island's MPA, and make many of the MPA’s objectives completely unachievable. As a management authority, there are limited options for us to prevent or mitigate the impacts of climate change locally beyond trying to build resilience in ecosystems through the reduction of other pressures. This is a global, existential threat and Ascension Island's contribution to fighting it could be to act as a valuable outdoor laboratory for research in the absence of other confounding pressures.

The need to mitigate the impacts of climate change has led to the development of global carbon markets and payments for the creation and management of habitats that sequester and store carbon. Currently, such payment mechanisms are confined to terrestrial habitats such as forests, but coastal mangroves and seagrass beds may soon become part of such programmes. Extending this to the management of the open ocean still requires considerable research. We know phytoplankton in our oceans absorb significant quantities of carbon from the atmosphere, but quantifying this, understanding how the carbon is then stored and assessing whether this is enhanced within well-managed MPAs compared to the rest of the ocean will take many years of further study. This research is underway, however, and could demonstrate that the Ascension Island MPA is making a globally-significant contribution to climate change mitigation and in time provide a sustainable source of funding in recognition of this.

The UK Government is in the process of deciding on the future governance model for Ascension Island. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office state that the aim of this assessment is ‘to ensure the island is funded and managed in a way that enables it to meet the strategic needs of the UK.’

The outcome of the ‘Future of Ascension’ discussions will not affect the existence of the MPA since it is a UK Government commitment and will be a priority in all potential scenarios. However, the focus of management, key stakeholders and potential funding sources could all be significantly affected depending on the option chosen. A military island is unlikely to encourage sports fishing and ecotourism, meaning these would not require the same management input, but would also not provide any income for the MPA. Under such a scenario, the RAF and USAF Commanders on the island would become the most important stakeholders for management decisions and emphasis may shift away from community involvement if the workforce becomes more transient.

Ascension is a remote military island and mass tourism is neither likely nor desirable. However, depending on the ‘Future of Ascension’ that is chosen, tourism could offer one of the few areas for income growth on Ascension and much of that would be linked to the marine environment. Before the suspension of the South Atlantic Airbridge, sports fishermen accounted for an estimated 72% of the average 190 visitors per year and it is the world-class fishing that is likely to be the primary draw for visitors to Ascension (Millington 2019). Wildlife tourism, diving and geology may attract additional visitors or provide secondary activities for fishermen. Improved air access will be the key factor determining the resurrection of Ascension’s tourist industry, but a well-regulated and managed MPA will enhance the offering and raise the global profile of Ascension.

MPA permit fees could offer a means of channelling some money from visitors back into MPA management, but since the number of tourists is likely to be small in relative terms, this will never be a significant source of funding. A more important benefit will be the money tourists bring to the island that could help sustain leisure businesses that also provide amenities for the local community and stimulate new business start-ups that generate income and tax revenue. Demonstrating that sustainable use of the marine environment can be more profitable than uncontrolled exploitation is an important aim of the MPA.

Marine conservation is a high profile issue and charitable donations to this cause totalled $1.9billion between 2010 and 2015, though most of this was given and spent in the USA (Packard Foundation, 2017). The challenge lies in converting this goodwill into sustained financial support for Ascension. The Trust Fund established by the Blue Marine Foundation, with an initial capitalisation of £2 million, provides a model for how philanthropic donations could provide a long-term income to fund conservation and community projects on Ascension.

There has never been such a high level of public interest in marine conservation. This has translated into cross-party, sustained political support for the UK Government’s Blue Belt Programme and the UK is positioning itself as a global leader in ocean protection. Ascension can help the UK achieve its targets and in return benefit from the resources and expertise available. It will also provide the political will to mainstream marine protection across all areas of legislation.