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Breaking Boundaries: Protecting marine biodiversity around the world

3 February 2021

2 minutes to read

Breaking Boundaries: Protecting marine biodiversity around the world

University of Exeter research has the protection of marine biodiversity across the world.

Researchers at the University of Exeter, along with international collaborators, explored the status, distribution and behaviour of marine vertebrate species which were of commercial or conservational importance.

The team used a number of approaches combining the latest cutting-edge technologies of tracking, at-sea surveys, acoustic and video surveying to map marine biodiversity. This was coupled with socio-economic studies that consider ocean user groups like fishers and how to encompass their needs and behaviour in marine planning.

This research started in 2003 and has led to both legislative change and the designation of more than 495,000 km2 (which equates to nearly 70 million football pitches) of marine protected areas (MPAs).

Photo Credit: Conservation des Espèces Marines (CEM)

Research at Ascension Island has supported the development of new protected areas legislation, as well as a biodiversity action plan, including 13 species action plans and three habitat action plans. As a result, the three main marine turtle nesting beaches and a major seabird colony were designated as national nature reserves.

University of Exeter staff also provided data on marine biodiversity hotspots and co-wrote a policy report with Ascension Island Government, providing recommendations for the designation of a Large Scale Marine Protected Area (LSMPA). In 2019, the UK Government designated 100% of the territorial waters of Ascension Island as a LSMPA, an area of 441,658km2, the second largest no take MPA in the Atlantic Ocean.

In Gabon, research has focused on mapping both marine biodiversity and ocean users to recommend areas for the designation of nine new marine parks and 11 aquatic reserves. Marine parks allow recreational activities, such as boating, snorkelling and sport fishing, whereas in aquatic reserves no fishing or development can take place.

These recommendations were accepted and led to the establishment of the first comprehensive MPA network in Central Africa, covering 56,000 km2 or more than 7.8 million football pitches. This increased the proportion of Gabon’s territorial waters under formal protection from less than 1% to more than a quarter (26%).

Photo Credit: CEM

Research into the legal turtle fishery in the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) led to recommendations put forward to the local government and resulted in legislative amendments in 2014. These amendments increased protection for marine turtles, with both a closed season and size limits to protect breeding adults, allowing the depleted nesting populations a greater chance of recovery.

Throughout these projects, University of Exeter researchers have worked in partnership with government agencies and non-governmental organisations in Ascension, Gabon and TCI to build capacity, support training and raise awareness for decision making, monitoring and enforcement to ensure the efficacy of these protective measures are maximised.


Breaking boundaries provides a bitesize look into the variety of leading research that has, and still is changing the world from the University of Exeter.

For more information please contact:

A video showing the work at Ascension Island featuring Prof Brendan Godley


UK Darwin Initiative

Rainforest Trust


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