Underwatertimes.com News Service - March 5, 2010 18:11 EST

Today, the Pew Environment Group praised the United Kingdom (U.K.) for taking one further step towards designating the world's largest marine reserve.

The proposed marine reserve would protect a group of 55 islands located in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Known as the Chagos Archipelago, the islands and their surrounding waters cover 210,000 square miles (544,000 square kilometers), an area larger than France. With some of the cleanest seas in the world, the islands are home to one of the most ecologically healthy coral reef systems on the planet.

The Chagos Archipelago and its surrounding waters comprise the British Indian Ocean Territory, an overseas territory of the U.K. Following a three-month public consultation, the U.K. government is now considering the designation of a Chagos Protected Area, which would safeguard the area's rich diversity of marine life by prohibiting extractive activities, such as fishing. More than 275,000 people from around the world have signed petitions supporting this designation. A final decision is expected sometime this spring.

"If designated, the Chagos Protected Area would establish a conservation legacy almost unrivalled in scale and significance anywhere in the world's oceans," said Joshua S. Reichert, Managing Director of the Pew Environment Group, which is a member of the Chagos Environment Network (CEN). The CEN is a group of leading conservation and scientific organizations seeking to protect the biodiversity of the Chagos Islands and their surrounding waters.

In addition to the Pew Environment Group, CEN is comprised of a number of U.K.-based organizations and individuals: the Chagos Conservation Trust; the Linnean Society of London; the Marine Conservation Society; the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds; the Zoological Society of London and Professor Charles Sheppard of the University of Warwick.

If the marine protection proposal is accepted, the Chagos Islands would provide an important global reference site for research in crucial areas such as ocean acidification, coral reef resilience, sea level rise, fish stock decline and climate change.

The Chagos Islands provide a safe haven for dwindling populations of sea turtles and hundreds of thousands of breeding sea birds, as well as an exceptional diversity of deep water habitats, such as trenches reaching nearly 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) in depth. The waters around the islands contain the world's largest coral atoll and many thriving species of corals and reef fish. At least 60 species listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) Red List of Endangered Species live in these waters.

"The Zoological Society of London is proud and excited to be engaged in the initiative to protect the Chagos Islands, one of the most biodiverse marine ecosystems on Earth," said Dr. Heather Koldewey, Curator, Aquarium Projects. "Working with the Pew Environment Group has proved an effective partnership in working towards a common goal - the largest marine reserve of its kind in the world."

Through its Global Ocean Legacy initiative, the Pew Environment Group works in partnership with local citizens and governments, such as the CEN, to help establish world-class, highly protected marine reserves that will provide ecosystem-scale benefits and help conserve the world's marine heritage. The Pew Environment Group's efforts have played a pivotal role in the designation of marine reserves including the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2006 - now the world's largest no-take marine reserve - and the Mariana Trench Marine National Monument in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in 2009.

"Designation of the Chagos Islands as the world's largest marine reserve would set a new benchmark for responsible ocean stewardship," said Reichert. "Overnight the U.K. government would be a world leader in the protection and conservation of marine resources."