Making science work for development

Conserving marine environments

Creating the world’s biggest marine reserve to support the biodiversity and people of the Indian Ocean

Coral reef ecosystems are core to the livelihoods of countless coastal communities. The destruction of these ecosystems by both climate change and human activity are having significant negative effects on millions of people. Researchers from the University of Warwick have been co-ordinating new approaches to coral reef conservation, restoration and management, using the British Indian Ocean Territory to guide the work. Underpinned by UK research, this territory has now been declared a Marine Protected Area, supporting ecosystem conservation to benefit tropical habitats and help preserve livelihoods in some of the poorest countries in that region.

Coral reefs are the most biodiverse marine ecosystems in the world, providing food and coastal protection to millions of people. However, global warming, pollution, over-fishing and other human activity are destroying many of the world’s coral reefs. About one third of coral reefs are now dead, and a further third are undergoing rapid decline. Communities that depend on these ecosystems for survival are suffering, with resulting food shortages leading to increases in death and disease.  

Schools of parrotfish help maintain Chagos reefs in very good condition (Image Anne Sheppard)

The coral reefs and islands of the Chagos Archipelago in the central Indian Ocean are a British Overseas Territory, and they are the UK’s most biodiverse marine environment. Research from the University of Warwick – funded by DFID, Defra and the FCO – has been exploring the unique aspects of this 60,000 square kilometre network of reefs: studying its ecology, geography and biodiversity.

As it is largely uninhabited, Chagos reefs have been little, if ever, affected by human activity. It boasts the cleanest seawaters ever tested and a high degree of biological richness, biomass and productivity. This quality makes Chagos very useful as a global research reference site – representing the optimal tropical marine ecosystem which can act as a baseline to which standards of other reef ecosystems can be compared.

Use of Chagos as a reference site is providing a strong foundation for the restoration and management of other damaged reefs. The data gathered from Chagos by over 100 researchers world-wide and coordinated from Warwick has enabled communities in other countries to understand better how undamaged reefs function and what can be achieved from the repair of reef ecosystems that have been damaged – guiding reef protection activities and prioritising their work. This is especially important for resource-poor countries and for those whose communities are most reliant on a healthy reef ecosystem. It has helped to increase food security and lessened the burden of environmental damage.

Chagos is home to many large groupers, which are usually fished out on most reefs (Image Anne Sheppard)

Research at Chagos has also demonstrated how climate change affects tropical reef ecosystems in the absence of other pollution impacts, as climate change is the only stress experienced by the Chagos reefs.  The studies have shown that where an area is vulnerable to climate change, rapid reef recovery is possible where human activity is restricted. These findings have provided considerable support for the concept of strictly protected Marine Protected Areas.

In 2010, under the leadership of Professor Charles Sheppard from Warwick University, many researchers supplied evidence that underpinned the UK Government’s decision to declare the 650,000 square kilometre British Indian Ocean Territory as a Marine Protected Area. It is the biggest of its kind in the world, and signalled a major step forward for ecosystem conservation and food security in the region.

Read more about this research in the original impact case study submitted to the Research Excellence Framework 2014.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs | Department for International Development | Foreign and Commonwealth Office