UK to set up world's largest marine reserve round disputed isles

THE world's largest marine reserve is to be created around the British-owned Chagos Islands, the government has announced.

The Marine Protected Area (MPA) will cover some quarter-of-a-million square miles of sea around the archipelago in the Indian Ocean and include a "no-take" reserve banning commercial fishing.

Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the establishment of the reserve in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) would double the amount of the world's oceans which were protected.

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The announcement was hailed as "fantastic" by conservationists who have been campaigning for the creation of a marine reserve to protect some of the world's most unspoilt seas and coral reefs in the face of pollution, climate change and loss of species.

But concerns have been raised about what the designation of the protected area would mean for former residents of the Chagos Islands fighting a long battle to return to the homeland from which they were evicted to make way for a US military base.

Mr Miliband said: "The MPA will cover some quarter-of-a-million miles and its establishment will double the global coverage of the world's oceans under protection.

"Its creation is a major step forward in protecting the oceans, not just around BIOT itself, but also throughout the world. This measure is a further demonstration of how the UK takes its international environmental responsibilities seriously."

He insisted the creation of the protected area would not affect the UK's commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it was no longer needed for military purposes. And it would take into account the legal proceedings brought by the Chagossians to the European Court of Human Rights.

The Chagos have been the subject of a long-running controversy in which islanders exiled in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a US airbase have fought for the right to return home.

The 55 islands across 210,000 square miles in the middle of the Indian Ocean which form the British Overseas Territory have at least 60 endangered species in their coral reefs and waters.

The islands are home to more than 220 types of coral, 1,000 species of fish and at least 33 different seabirds, and have been described as the most pristine tropical marine environment on Earth.

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Greenpeace biodiversity campaigner Willie Mackenzie said: "These coral seas are a biodiversity hotspot in the Indian Ocean, and unquestionably worthy of protection from destructive activities like fishing. And this marine reserve will provide a safe refuge for many globally endangered species such as sharks and turtles."