Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The waters surrounding the Chagos Islands


A company belonging to the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser is opposing plans to create the world’s biggest marine reserve. His company holds a government contract to manage fishing in the area, which would be banned if the reserve were created.

The waters surrounding the Chagos Islands — or the British Indian Ocean Territory — are among the most pristine in the world. In November David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, announced a consultation on whether to ban all fishing in the area after a campaign by a coalition of conservationists and ecological scientists. A decision is expected in the spring.

The company owned by Professor John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser, and his wife, argues there is no evidence that a ban would improve the environment and would in fact drive fishing boats into other areas of the Indian Ocean where there is less control over what they catch.

The Marine Resources Assessment Group (MRAG) Ltd was established by Professor Beddington, a renowned expert on marine fisheries, in 1986.

A green turtle off the Diego Garcia atoll, Chagos Islands

A green turtle in the Chagos Islands

In 1991 a 200-mile exclusion zone was declared around the Chagos Islands and MRAG won the contract to manage the fishing. The following year Professor Beddington became special adviser to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on the fisheries around Chagos. Although the management contract must be put out for tender every five years, MRAG has always won it. Neither MRAG nor the Foreign Office will confirm its value, but MacAlister Elliott, a company that tendered for the work in 2005, put in a bid of £1.4 million for three years.

Upon taking his government position in 2008 Professor Beddington resigned his directorship but he still controls the company with a majority shareholding (50.1 per cent). The remainder are owned by his wife.

The Foreign Office earns between £700,000 and £1 million a year from licences to fish around Chagos. This income offsets the £1.7 million annual cost of running the region’s patrol boat, the Pacific Marlin. The shortfall is made up from a Foreign Office fund.

MRAG is not opposed to protecting the area’s coral reefs, but is against the proposal to ban fishing from the 544,000 sq km (210,000 sq miles) under British control. The MRAG contract ends in May, although the Government has the option of extending it for another year.

“If the whole area was declared closed there could be potentially negative consequences,” said Chris Rees, the MRAG development director. “Shark-finning is banned completely, unlike elsewhere in the Indian Ocean. If you close the fishery those boats will be displaced to areas where there is less control.”

While acknowledging the benefits of marine reserves for resident species, Mr Rees said that “for tuna fisheries the case is less strong. Unless very, very large — and the size of the waters is not sufficiently large — then reserves are not going to affect the catch of highly migratory species like tuna.”

But other marine scientists disagree. “Tuna aren’t free-swimming in a random way,” said Heather Koldewey, a marine ecologist at the Zoological Society of London. “They’re attracted to certain features and Chagos is a perfect breeding area for them.”

While scientists working on fisheries management (including those at MRAG) focus on the sustainability of harvesting key species such as tuna, those from other branches of marine science increasingly recognise that protecting the wider ecosystem is vital for the long-term health of the ocean.

“Top predators are the linchpin for the whole ecosystem. Remove them and there are knock-on effects down the food chain,” Dr Koldeway said.

A spokesman said that Professor Beddington had not been involved in the management of MRAG and had not discussed related issues with the Foreign Office. Not all science related to government business passed his office, the spokesman said, but he did oversee other chief scientific advisers.

Last July the Foreign Office hired Professor David Clary as its chief scientific adviser. If the Foreign Secretary requires guidance, it is Professor Clary that he will turn to first.

“The concern is that he [Professor Beddington] has the potential for informal influence over this decision,” said Norman Lamb, the Liberal Democrat frontbencher. “I would have thought, given his role, it is perhaps appropriate to divest himself of all financial interests while the decision is being made.”

Willie Mackenzie, an ocean campaigner for Greenpeace, said: “Scientists tell us that marine reserves are crucial to protect marine life. Unfortunately it seems that a company owned by the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser didn’t get the memo.”

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