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Ocean of Possibilities

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When a group of scientists recently embarked upon a groundbreaking expedition to the Chagos Archipelago, I began to think about a fact one hears a lot in the marine conservation space: that we know more about the moon than about the oceans.

While certainly clicheed it's poignantly true. Two thirds of our planet is covered by ocean but only 1/10 of the sea floor has been explored; we know significantly less about it than the surface of the moon, over 220,000 miles away. The same applies when compared with what we know about our terrestrial habitats. 1.5 million land species have been identified, while only 275,000 marine species have been and yet it is estimated that coral reefs alone may harbour in excess of 1 million lifeforms. Just imagine the possibilities for discovery.

What is so concerning is that the oceans remain almost completely unprotected from man's exploitation and misuse. This is the result of a combination of factors, from the complexity of issues like overfishing to the difficulty of visually demonstrating the ocean's degradation to the global public. Crucially, our limited understanding of marine ecosystems and the threats to them has been a barrier to their protection, a phenomenon in our world that seems to shy away from a precautionary approach to resource management, let alone conservation. The result is that little over 1 percent of the oceans are fully protected. While even on land we still need greater protection of our natural resources, with 12 percent of land protected, terrestrial habitats benefit from far greater security than do our marine ones.

That is why marine biologists across the world are so excited about a major research expedition that just took place in the Chagos marine reserve in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT). The trip was facilitated by the Foreign Office, world class NGOs like the Zoological Soceity of London and institutions like the Bertarelli Foundation whose visionary and timely funding helped to create this world-class marine reserve. The 12 person scientific team had an important mission, to prioritise long-term monitoring programmes for the area and establish the best and most resource-efficient methods to monitor and manage marine protected areas (MPA).

As the first full scientific expedition since the no-take MPA was established in April 2010 this work plays a crucial role assisting BIOT in understanding and managing the world's largest fully no-take MPA, maintaining this extraordinarily rich area of marine and terrestrial biodiversity. This is not only pivotal in better understanding the value of the Chagos marine reserve but of marine biodiversity across the globe.

The waters around the Chagos islands are by far the richest marine ecosystem under UK jurisdiction with 49 percent of the most undisturbed reefs in the Indian Ocean and home to the world's largest living coral atoll -- the Great Chagos Bank -- with a remarkable diversity of over 220 coral species (almost half the recorded species of the entire Indian Ocean) and over 1,000 species of fish. They are comparable in global importance to the Great Barrier Reef and Galapagos Islands.

Yet to date, only 3 percent of Chagos has been fully explored, making it a place where groundbreaking scientific discoveries have every possibility of being made. Already we know that the Chagos is home to at least 10 endemic species including brain coral, one of the world's 10 most evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered species, while a previous expedition identified an immense area of seagrass and a large stand of mangroves, neither of which were previously known. Both these are critical habitats for carbon capture and storage, having a significant role in climate change mitigation and adaption.

As well as conducting a species inventory of the Chagos, that hopes to identify many new species, the trip's research objectives were as diverse as the biodiversity they studied. The implications of this much needed science will be an improved understanding of climate change, as well as ecosystem degradation and its possibility for recovery. No small achievement.

If we are to value biodiversity -- whether emotionally, culturally, politically, economically or otherwise, we must also understand what it is that we are valuing. It is refreshing and reassuring to see projects like these making the most of what little protection we have afforded our oceans to date, to continue making discoveries -- identifying new species tucked away in the folds of a coral reef to helping man appreciate our impact on the planet and its ability to recover and even flourish, if we allow it too.

To read the fascinating blog from the expedition visit Chagos-trust.org.

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