Chagos resets the baselines

By Dr. Heather Koldewey

Photo: Bob Long

Photo: Bob Long

Dr. Heather Koldewey, co-Founder of Project Seahorse and Head of Global Programmes at the Zoological Society of London, writes about the creation of the Chagos Marine Reserve, the largest no-take marine protected area in the world. 

Chagos taught me that I didn’t know what the ocean should look like.

Through my job at the Zoological Society of London, I’m one of those very privileged people to have had the opportunity to travel the world, and have worked from Mozambique to the Philippines in community-based marine conservation efforts.

In the Philippines’ the areas I work are what can only be described as ‘trashed’ – blasted craters giving evidence of recent dynamite fishing, few tiny schooling fish, and if you’re lucky, the flick of a tail as a small grouper scoots into a rocky crevice. Here, marine protected areas (MPAs) are about securing some hope for the future for poor and hungry communities with ever-decreasing options. And MPAs do work, protecting and restoring the wonderful diversity of coral reefs, but also recovering fish populations. Fishers there are fully engaged with MPA management as they know the importance of such areas of ocean protection to secure their future, as well as that of the ocean, something I only wish was a more widely held view within UK fishing communities.

I knew Chagos was different. I’d seen the talks, read the articles, talked to the scientists, seen the data. I knew Chagos was special, hence my commitment and support for it becoming a no-take MPA and involvement in the Chagos Environment Network and Chagos Conservation Trust executive committee. But seeing it for real was quite another experience that a graph, a chart or even an image could simply not prepare me for.

Working closely with the legendary experience of Charles Sheppard and extraordinary expedition skills of Pete Raines, we were fortunate to pull together a world class team of scientists prioritising the immediate research needs that would best inform a Chagos MPA management plan. For the first time, an integral member of the team was a trainee scientist who also represented the Chagossian community, a hugely positive step and one of the many successes of the expedition.

But back to my knowledge gap. Once in the water, I was unprepared for the sheer abundance of fish, the size and age of fish, and particularly the behaviour of those fish. For many years, I was curator of ZSL London Zoo’s aquarium so I know what a gnarly old fish looks like and you just don’t see them in the wild. Chagos was full of them. I have never had so many different kinds of fish swim towards me out of sheer curiosity – including lots of huge grouper that hung in the water column, something I hadn’t seen before. To quote from Finding Nemo – ‘Fish are friends not food’ in Chagos. I could not believe the vast areas of stunning plate corals, any one of which would be a significant attraction in any dive site in the world. I experienced the sheer joy of seeing sharks on every dive – decimated in most of our oceans and in even in trouble in Chagos.

Most of all, I could not quite come to terms with what we have done almost everywhere else. Our oceans are in a desperate state and pressure from people is only increasing. Worringly, even those of us who are involved in ocean conservation are shifting our reference points, starting to consider mediocre, depleted reefs to be comparatively good. We have lost a sense of what our oceans should look like and could look like. Chagos was certainly the most beautiful place on Earth I have ever been to and being part of the expedition has further increased my resolve that this is a vital wilderness area of enormous significance that must be protected. And the graphs and charts say that too.

Originally published on the Marine Reserves Coalition Blog.