Highly successful blue belt programme to be extended

By Jonathan Kitto, jonathan.kitto@fotbot.org

The UK Government’s flagship Blue Belt Programme works closely with 7 BOTs in enhancing and maintaining over 4 million square kilometres of marine environment in the UK Overseas Territories. The programme covers a broad spectrum of cross-territory conservation from protecting biodiversity to promoting sustainable fishing and increasing the capacity of the territories involved to better protect their waters from illegal catches. Alongside this cross-territory work, there has been territory specific initiatives to cater to the various challenges that each individual territory faces.

The programme has received a one-year extension as well as an extra £7 million of extra funding that was announced by the government at the 2019 G7 Summit. The extension has been well received by the Overseas Territories currently involved, enabling them to build on their globally significant natural capital as well as steadily increasing skills in the territories and providing funding for vital infrastructure that will allow conservation to continue many years after the Programme ends. Both the extension and the extra funding provide the exciting opportunity for even more UK Overseas Territories to join the programme.

The Blue Belt Programme is a perfect example of the disproportionate importance that the BOTs can have on the global stage, especially with regards to environmental conservation and sustainability. While the majority of BOTs are small island territories their marine areas cover vast expanses of the Oceans. These waters are teeming with life and globally significant. Therefore, the British Overseas Territories have naturally found themselves at the heart of the UK government’s commitment to ensure that 30% of the world’s oceans are covered by Marine Protected Areas. A major step forward to reaching this goal was achieved this year when Ascension Island Council agreed to designate 100% of their Exclusive Economic Zone as a no take Marine Protected Area; at a size of 440,000 square kilometres this makes it one of the largest Marine Protected Areas in the World and will ensure the protection of many vulnerable species such as sharks, green turtles and marlin. This will join the existing Maritime Protected Areas already present in St Helena, Pitcairn, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, British Antarctic Territory and British Indian Ocean Territory. Tristan da Cunha is currently finalising their own Maritime Protection Zone that is expected to be announced later this year.

Such measures are more than just empty words as the Blue Belt Programme has facilitated a clear levelling up of participating territories’ enforcement capabilities. Nowhere was this better seen than in January earlier this year when a vessel was detained after conducting illegal activity in the British Indian Ocean Territory.

Work conducted by and under the auspices of the Blue Belt Programme goes beyond maritime protection and enforcement. In 2019 the exciting discovery of an underwater mountain in St Helena was made. The mountain, which is roughly twice the height of Britain’s largest mountain, Ben Nevis, has been successfully mapped by Blue Belt Scientists with help from the local community.

The future looks promising for all the territories participating in the Blue Belt Programme and the year-long extension is greatly welcomed, with skills, capacities and environmental protection continuing to be enhanced, who knows what discoveries are still to be made?