The British Empire is over: that is what everyone thinks. But there is a not inconsiderable area of the planet's surface on which the imperial sun has so far failed to set: Britain's 14 Overseas Territories. These mostly small islands scattered across the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans possess a disproportionate biological diversity that far outweighs their diminutive size. Collectively they contain more globally threatened species than the whole of Europe (34); encompass the largest coral atoll in the world, in the British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT); and no less than a third of all albatrosses breed on them. The overseas territories also have exclusive rights over their territorial waters, thanks to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which means that Queen Elizabeth II holds sway over the fifth-largest exclusive economic zone in the world. As the world's oceans have come under threat from poorly controlled and monitored fishing practices, so the overseas territories have also become increasingly important in conservation terms.
So does Britain manage these "fragments of paradise," as they have been called, in a manner commensurate with the fact that they contain 90 per cent of the total biological diversity for which Britain is responsible? It would be nice to think so. The British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said in a recent White Paper that the coalition government has 'a vision for the territories...of natural environments protected and managed to the highest international standards,' which is quite a commitment. There are, of course, democratic complications in that some of the territories (which number, in full, the Pitcairn Islands, the Cayman islands, Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, Anguilla, Montserrat, the British Virgin Islands, Gibraltar, the sovereign military bases of Cyprus, Ascension, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British Antarctic Territory and the British Indian Ocean Territory) have their own governments, which in turn understandably have their own views on how to run their environment. But it is also clear from a recent House of Commons select committee report that Britain has a responsibility to ensure that all the OTs, as they are called, comply with international treaties Britain has signed on behalf of all UK territories, such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This decrees, among other things, that countries will set aside ten per cent of the world's oceans as marine reserves by 2020.
Herein lies the first source of embarrassment. For although Britain has been progressive in turning the entire waters of the BIOT, the islands of the Chagos Archipelago, over to becoming one of the the largest marine reserves in the world and has also declared a marine protected area around South Georgia, it has not been consistent in applying conservation principles across all its territories. Indeed, only four of them - the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar and St Helena - have completed the necessary preparations to join the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. Another embarrassment is the revelation that the Government agency responsible for conservation in the territories, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC), does not consider the CBD to be legally binding and therefore does not devote significant resources to complying with it. It is not clear that this interpretation is wholly correct.
These are technical matters, but they nevertheless distort policy. A more practical embarrassment is presented by the challenge of preventing illegal fishing in remote areas. Monitoring and enforcement only currently happens in the Falklands, South Georgia and the BIOT, leaving 3.4 million km2 of ocean effectively unpatrolled. Licensed fishing takes place in these waters without monitoring, which may well mean that the marine environment is being illegally degraded. The Ascension Island government, for example, last year granted 39 fishing licences to fish for bigeye tuna - a species listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species - as well as yellowfin tuna, albacore and swordfish, to longline vessels from Taiwan, China, the Philippines and Japan. There was no requirement that vessels had to dock in the territory before or after fishing, meaning there was also no way of monitoring what was caught. There was evidence of similar fishing methods killing leatherback turtles and frigate birds just outside the Ascension exclusive economic zone. Conservationists believe that these fishing vessels may also be capturing and finning sharks. The UK Foreign Office has assured conservationists, since they pointed this out, that it is moving to a licensing regime based on that of the Falklands and will not award any more licences until a new fishery system is launched this year.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the good governance of these fragments of paradise is unfinished business. The British government should, in fact, regard it as an enormous opportunity. Until now it has spent about £1million a year on conservation amongst its overseas territories, compared with £460 million in the UK. This means that the areas most important to global biodiversity are the least resourced. The issue is not just money. The failure of government officials to set conservation needs in order of priority means that outside sources of funding are not sought, even where these are available. The overseas territories need a conservation strategy - which could encompass current proposals for marine protected areas around Pitcairn and the South Sandwich Islands as well as much else. The ambitious minister who pilots such a policy through could justifiably claim to have achieved something significant. Some specks on the map would have a new, global role in an increasingly biodiversity-poor world.