Blue Belt Initiative Will Collect Environmental Data Across UK Overseas Territories

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A group of silvertip sharks are attracted to the camera's baited box (Still image from Blue Abacus video)

The UK Government has announced a programme to install a large array of underwater cameras to monitor wildlife and ecosystems surrounding UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) as part of its 'Blue Belt' Programme, which currently affords protected status to some four million square kilometres of ocean.

Scientists from the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), the University of Western Australia, and other partners in the UKOTs will be working with Blue Abacus, a marine conservation organisation specialising in the collection of scientific data through a network of underwater monitoring systems known as non-intrusive stereo-Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems - or BRUVS, for short.

Sixty-six BRUVS –cameras with a box of bait attached to attract aquatic life – will be deployed in the open ocean and coastal habitats of UKOTs to form the 'Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network', monitoring and collecting data in locations found in the Atlantic, Indian, Pacific and Southern Oceans. The UKOTs involved in the project include Anguilla, Ascension Island, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha.

'BRUVS will enable researchers to see below the surface and provide a benchmark of scientific understanding of the marine species within their maritime area, allowing the UKOTs to take more informed decisions about protecting and managing these diverse ecosystems,' states a government press release. 'The data the cameras collect will provide a standard measure of the status of both open ocean and reef species, letting scientists and the UKOTs set benchmarks for diversity and abundances. This will form valuable information on the many migratory species of open ocean and coastal reef fish species, assist in the management of data-poor fisheries and also improve our understanding of the functioning of pelagic and benthic ecosystems.'

Co-founder of Blue Abacus and Professor at the University of Western Australia, Jessica Meeuwig, said: 'The world’s tunas, sharks and large reef fish continue to decline in numbers and this trend must be reversed. This programme will give decision-makers the evidence they need to act decisively in support of their blue economies. Our refinements to conventional underwater cameras are what makes possible the rollout of this programme over four ocean basins, the largest single such government-supported initiative globally.'

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A great white shark investigates the BRUVS' camera (Still image from Blue Abacus video)

The Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network and its network of underwater cameras will support the conservation work already established by UKOTs, including the South Atlantic island of St Helena, where research conducted into tuna fishing is helping to inform the sustainability policies of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT), and where research into whale sharks is helping to inform understanding conservation of the species on a global scale.

'UK Overseas Territories are taking a global lead on protecting their oceans and the wildlife and livelihoods that it supports,' said Cefas project lead, Dr Paul Whomersley. 'The Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network will provide UKOTs with a world-first network of stereo-baited remote underwater video systems which will enable us all to better understand the biodiversity, functioning and connectivity of these ocean areas, while providing valuable and necessary data to inform and develop UKOTs marine management and protection strategies.'

The news has been broadly welcomed by conservation organisations, including the UK's Marine Conservation Society, which has been campaigning for an expansion to the Blue Belt programme and called it 'a great start'. 

The project has also received support from UK ministers and UKOT representatives, and it is hoped that not only will the programme broaden scientific knowledge of the Blue Belt's marine protected areas but also strengthen the network of UK Overseas Territories that is driving improvements in marine conservation and, hopefully, allow the project to expanded across mainland UK's territorial waters – and beyond – in the future. 

'Science is constantly striving to find innovative solutions to monitor the marine environment and these baited cameras offer a solution to help us better understand mid-water communities close to shore along the Antarctic Peninsula, said Dr Simon Morley of British Antarctic Survey, representing British Antarctic Territory said. 'This global network gives us an excellent opportunity to compare different oceans and understanding the impact of our changing climate.'

 

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