Submitted by guest blogger Debbie Salamone of the Pew Campaign to End Overfishing in the Southeast.

Olympic athletes are earning their medals. But there’s a

different sort of race to greatness under way.

It’s the United Kingdom vs. the United States of America for the title of creator of the planet’s

largest marine reserve.

Just before leaving office, President George W. Bush set the

record when he designated three areas in the Pacific as reserves –

places set aside for conservation where people cannot fish, mine or

remove natural resources. 

The areas surrounding the Mariana Islands and several remote

islands in the central Pacific span 195,000 square miles – an

expanse greater than Oregon and Washington combined. The region

boasts the world’s deepest canyon, volcanoes and fissures that spew

hot water near coral reefs, creating the greatest diversity of life

yet discovered near these unique, life-giving vents.

Now U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and Foreign Secretary David

Miliband have a chance to best the Bush record by creating a reserve

in the Chagos Archipelago – 55

tiny islands in the middle of the Indian Ocean that are home to the

world’s largest coral atoll. The archipelago spans 210,000

square miles – an area larger than California and twice the size of

the U.K.'s land surface.

The U.K. government is expected to decide whether to set the area

aside as a reserve in the next few months. A Chagos

marine reserve would be as important to conservation as the Galapagos

Islands or the Great Barrier Reef. It would

almost double the size of the world’s marine protected areas. Only

2 percent of the world’s oceans have been protected from extractive

and destructive human activities.

The remote Chagos Archipelago boasts some of the world’s

cleanest seas. Except for a joint U.S.-U.K. military base, the

islands are uninhabited and largely undeveloped. The area is a refuge

and breeding ground for large, critically important populations of

sharks, as well as green and hawkbill sea turtles and 1,000 fish

species. The atoll also provides habitat for the richest diversity of

seabirds in the Indian Ocean and the world's largest land crab: the

coconut crab. At least 60 species listed on the International Union

for the Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened and

Endangered Species live in these waters.

Chagos waters hold half of the remaining

healthy coral reefs in the Indian Ocean, which are considered among

the most resilient to warming temperatures. For scientists, they are

invaluable for study because they can be compared to other corals

around the world that are dying from climate change impacts.

But several challenges exist. No fishing would mean lost revenues.

Yet a protected area would help declining fish populations recover,

potentially increasing the number of available fish over a much wider

area than the marine reserve.

And there are ongoing legal claims of the Chagossian people, who

were relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles in the 1960s following

a decision that the islands should be set aside for defense needs.

They are trying to secure their return to the islands. If the

Chagossians are allowed to return it would be beneficial to them for

the island ecosystems to be in the best possible condition.

The bottom line is that the Chagos represent

an unparalleled opportunity to protect one of the world's premier

ecosystems amid Indian Ocean nations whose shores are densely

populated and industrialized and whose ecosystems are increasingly

stressed.

In that case, ceding a U.S. title to the

U.K. would make everyone a winner.

Let the challenge begin.

See a

photo slide show of the Chagos and learn more about the Pew Environment

Group’s efforts to protect this special place, as well as other critical

marine environments around the world, at http://www.globaloceanlegacy.org/chagos/index.html