Best of 2020: The Creation of Tristan da Cunha MPA

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

In November of 2020, the government of Tristan da Cunha, a four-island archipelago in the South Atlantic, announced that it is creating the fourth-largest marine “no-take” reserve in the world The new marine reserve will encompass 265,347 square miles, making it almost three times larger than the United Kingdom. Tristan da Cunha, a British territory, will protect 90% of the waters around the island chain by banning fishing, mining, and other extractive activities.  What makes it so special?  “This is a place that has a unique ecosystem that is found nowhere else,” National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala remarked, ant is notable for its kelp forests and as a critical nursery for blue sharks.

Why This Matters:  As National Geographic states, while 8% of the world’s ocean territory is protected at some level, commercial fishing is banned in only 2.6%. A recent study by leading scientists in the field found that marine protection leads to greater abundance for nearby fishing.  Expanding current protected areas by even 5 percent, the study found, could boost global fish catch by at least 20 percent. Marine protected areas (MPAs) are “a conservation silver bullet.” This is one of the reasons why scientists recommend that we increase fully protected marine areas to 30% of the globe by 2030.

Spillover Effect

As we reported last month, the study’s findings were significant because they are contrary to the public’s belief that increasing marine protection creates a decrease in the number of fish caught by fishers.  Instead, the study, which appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, further corroborated established scientific evidence that no-take marine reserves instead increase food supplies because they result in larger catches by fishers. Marine protected areas in which fish stocks are left undisturbed can produce a “spillover” effect — in other words, an abundance of fish from a protected area “spills over” into areas outside those no-fishing zones where fishers can catch them.


Fully protecting most of the area around Tristan da Cunha has been an objective of the National Geographic Society’s Campaign for Nature Initiative, which calls for 30 percent of the ocean to be protected.  Protecting 30%, according to their research,  would create numerous benefits for ecosystems beyond boosting fish stocks for food. The campaign also argues that safeguarding 30% of the ocean will also help protect critically endangered species from extinction.  “We have 10 years to protect 30 percent of the ocean if we want to stop the extinction of species,” says Sala.

Tristan da Cunha Cooperation

Tristan da Cunha’s announcement is part of the U.K.’s Blue Belt Programme, which, as of today, safeguards 2.7 million square miles of marine ecosystems around the world mostly around small island territories under the control of the U.K. government. This new sanctuary is the result of a collaboration among the governments plus a number of conservation groups, including the U.K.’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the National Geographic’s Society’s Pristine Seas initiative, along with Conservation International and the Pew Trusts.  Currently, only 245 people of Scottish, American, Dutch, and Italian heritage live there on the island’s only village, called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas.

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