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Britain protects Chagos Islands, creating world's largest marine reserve

A group of 55 islands, off limits to industrial fishing and other extractive activities are home to some of the most varied aquatic species in the world.

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 2, 2010

The British government on Thursday announced the creation of the world's largest marine reserve, designating a group of 55 islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean off-limits to industrial fishing and other extractive activities.

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The Chagos Islands are home to roughly half of the Indian Ocean's healthy coral reefs, along with several imperiled sea turtle species and 175,000 pairs of breeding seabirds. The new preserve covers 210,000 square miles -- an area larger than California and more than twice the size of Britain -- and will shelter at least 76 species classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Just two-tenths of 1 percent of the world's oceans are protected, compared with 6 to 11 percent of the world's land mass; the Chagos Islands addition will increase it to roughly three-tenths of 1 percent. The new protected area will surpass the Papahânaumokuâkea Marine National Monument in the waters of the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, set aside by President George W. Bush in 2006, as the biggest marine reserve.

"Its establishment will double the global coverage of the world's oceans under protection," Britain's foreign secretary, David Miliband, said in a statement. "This measure is a further demonstration of how the U.K. takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously."

Jay Nelson, who directs the Pew Environment Group's global ocean legacy initiative, called the decision "a historic victory for global ocean conservation."

"It's really a biological gem," Nelson said of the Chagos Islands.

He noted that because the corals live at greater depths in the area they are less vulnerable to bleaching, and that the large-scale fishing prohibition should protect both tuna and the 60,000 sharks caught each year accidentally by tuna fishermen. "It should give the tuna some breathing room," Nelson said. "And it's good news for sharks, too."

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