By Ben Parker, Research Assistant
The Pitcairn Islands, renowned for its breathtaking beauty, remarkable marine biodiversity, and one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, now hosts the world’s most remote marine science base. The base will allow scientists from across the world to spend time in the area and, importantly, conduct research that will enhance our understanding of its incredible marine ecosystems.
Indeed, the Governor, Iona Thomas, who opened the base, expressed her enthusiasm for the project with the words, “The ocean around the Pitcairn Islands is one of the most pristine places on earth and home to a treasure trove of sharks, fish, corals and other marine life not seen anywhere else in the world… I hope this base will attract a continuous cycle of scientists to the islands and provide a huge boost to our knowledge of marine science in what is one of the last remaining untouched marine habitats on the planet.”
After all, the Pitcairn Islands hosts a bountiful array of marine life in what are some of the most pristine marine environments on earth. Over 1,250 marine species have been recorded in its waters. There are more than 20 species of porpoises, dolphins, and whales, including humpback whales, Vulnerable fin whales and Endangered sei and blue whales, as well as Critically Endangered hawksbill turtles and Endangered green turtles. The territory’s corals are particularly intriguing as they thrive in deeper, clearer and cooler waters compared to most other tropical coral reefs. What’s more, some of the territory’s fish are found nowhere else in the world, like the squirrelfish Sargocentron megalops, the many-spined butterflyfish Hemitaurichthys multipinous, and the triplefin Enneapterygius ornatus. Plus, its deeper waters hold hundreds of seamounts, which are important for a plethora of deep-sea wildlife.
The marine science base and the insights that it will no doubt facilitate are in keeping with other inspiring environment-focussed pursuits in the area; perhaps most notably, in 2016, the Pitcairn Island Marine Reserve was legally designated. At over 830,000 km2, the reserve covers the territory’s entire exclusive economic zone and ranks amongst the largest marine reserves in the world. Interestingly enough, this tallies to over 20,000 km2 per person in the territory: one of the highest ratios in the world. Monitoring such a vast area, though, is a challenge; hence, a satellite watch room called Project Eyes on the Seas has been established in the metropolitan UK to monitor vessel activity and, in so doing, gather sufficient information to prosecute unauthorised activities.
In appreciation for its activities, in 2023, the Pitcairn Island Marine Reserve received a very prestigious Platinum Blue Park Award from the Marine Conservation Institute. As part of the presentation of the award, the institute declared that the “Pitcairn Islands [Marine Reserve] provides strong protection and active, effective management to a vast ocean area hosting outstanding biodiversity.”
Anyway, back to the base: it is a testament to the concerted efforts of many stakeholders. Local residents largely built the base, and they will spearhead its management and governance. The UK Government, through its flagship marine conservation initiative for the Overseas Territories, the Blue Belt Programme, has been providing advice and assistance, and is providing funding to the University of St Andrews to engage with local residents to help with their management and governance activities. Looking forward, the research conducted from the base promises to provide a wealth of insights. For instance, the highly protected nature of the Pitcairn Island Marine Reserve will contribute towards research into the effectiveness and benefits of marine protected areas, and the relatively pristine nature of the territory’s marine environments will enable research into the increasingly pressing effects of climate change.