Green Futures

The Blue Belt Programme

by Kylie Bamford, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO)

The UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are home to some of the most biologically valuable and unique life on Earth, from the butterfly fish of St Helena to the vast penguin colonies of South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

These Territories face incredible challenges in both protecting and managing their marine and terrestrial environments. These range from on island capacity to develop understanding of their biodiversity and how best to safeguard it, to tackling the threats of unsustainable human activity and climate change.

In 2016, the UK Government launched the Blue Belt Programme, to assist the UKOTs in enhancing marine protection across more than 4 million square kilometres of marine environment. Five territories initially joined  the Programme: Ascension Island, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha (classed as one territory but each ecologically unique), British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, Pitcairn Islands and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands.

The Programme’s delivery partners – the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) –provide  expertise in applied marine science, management, technology, governance and compliance and enforcement. They also work with other UK Government bodies and non-governmental organisations to ensure the UKOTs receive the best support available.

The focus of  this work has been on the creation and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). While some UKOTs joined the programme with MPAs already designated, others, such as Tristan da Cunha, the world’s most remote inhabited island, created the fourth-largest marine “no-take” reserve in the world by designating its Marine Protected Zone (MPZ) in 2020.  Through this latest designation, Blue Belt exceed its aim and supports the protection of 4.3 million square kilometres of marine environment.

Ultimately each Territory is unique in both their marine environments, and the priorities and challenges they face to protect them. With the Programme’s assistance, they work across the following themes to bolster marine protection and sustainable management:

Understanding and protecting diversity

Through research and survey work, UKOTs are strengthening their knowledge and understanding of their marine environments. Through filling data gaps and building on previous research, Territories can assess the impact of human activity and the need for management measures. Examples of this work include the creation of inshore habitat maps in St Helena using various data types. These describe the nature of the seabed substrate and can be used to identify areas important for key marine species.

The programme  also funds a global network of non-intrusive underwater cameras, known as the Global Ocean Wildlife Analysis Network. Rolled out across 11 UKOTs, the Baited Remote Underwater Video Systems (BRUVS) are collecting important biological information and providing new insights on these marine environments. This information will ultimately help inform management and protection measures.

Strengthening Governance

A very important aspect of the Programme’s work is the assistance provided to Territories to ensure that they have in place the most effective policies and legislative frameworks to manage their MPAs and sustainable activties. For MPAs to be managed as effectively as possible, UKOTs have produced marine management plans which alongside their long-term ambition for the marine environment, sets out their management and conservation goals; the tools they require to achieve them; and cycle for feedback management to ensure they are meeting their objectives.

Managing the impacts of other human activities

The negative impact of human activities can be a major threat to the marine environments of the UKOTs. The British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) busy shipping lane can be a threat to marine life and habitats – particularly the coral reefs. Therefore the BIOT Administration developed a monitoring strategy which is helping them to identify potential problems quickly and inform management decisions. And on Pitcairn, a Whale Watching Code of Conduct was developed  to protect the vulnerable migrating Humpback whales. The Code provides advice on how to watch the whales without disrupt them and causing unnecessary stress.

Supporting sustainable fisheries

Sustainable fishing has many cultural, economic and environmental benefits for UKOTs. From protecting marine life and respecting marine ecosystems to reducing pollution and contributing to food security.

This is particularly true for Ascension Island which has a small-scale inshore fishery for the local population. The programme has provided advice on the development of data collection programmes to inform stock assessments of exploited fish and shellfish species, including the rock hind, squirrel fish and the spiny lobster. This information will contribute to these species being fished sustainably.

Highly precautionary, science driven fisheries also operate in the MPA around South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands. Revenue generated by fishing operations contributes to the management and enforcement of the broader MPA objectives, including the year-round presence of the Government’s patrol vessel to reduce the threat of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU).

Supporting compliance and enforcement

The risks presented to Territories by IUU fishing are being tackled through the strengthening of their monitoring, compliance and enforcement capabilities. UKOTs, often remote with vast maritime areas face significant challenges in monitoring activities, particularly in the outer edges of their zones. The Blue Belt assists Territories through the use of satellite surveillance, intelligence sharing and new  innovative and effective remote monitoring technologies. Last year a vessel suspected of IUU fishing in the waters around the British Antarctic Territory (BAT). The vessel was investigated using  satellite and aerial surveillance with the  Royal Air Force (RAF) and regional cooperation through the Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). This vessel has now been included in the CCAMLR non-contracting party IUU list.

To further assist UKOTs who do not require the full suite of assistance from the Blue Belt, the Blue Shield Programme was created to offer a range of maritime domain awareness support. Bermuda was the first Territory to join the Blue Shield and conversations are being held with a number of other Territories who are interested in accessing this support.

Tackling “big ocean” themes: such as climate change and pollution.

Understanding the potential impacts of climate change and marine pollution on the UKOTs is unsurprisingly increasing in importance and focus. To better understand the potential impacts of climate change, scientific report cards were produced to identify specific potential impacts on the coral reefs of BIOT and Pitcairn. To reduce the climate change stressors on corals, Territories are considering adaptation options, which  range from marine management strategies to help improve coral resilience to improving coastal water quality.

Pollution is also another concern. In Tristan da Cunha, two Areas to Be Avoided (ATBA) were designated within its Exclusive Economic zone to reduce the risk of shipping accidents and pollution events. With the programme’s assistance, the Tristan da Cunha Government developed a comprehensive monitoring and reporting system to track activity within the ATBAs and work is underway to develop Virtual Aids to Navigation. This technology acts as an early warning system that will help alert transiting vessels to hazards and ATBAs, improving compliance.


While UKOTs may face similar challenges, the diverse nature of their geographies, on island capacity and capabilities and vast biodiversity demands that the solutions they choose to protect their marine environments can be equally unique. It is through the Blue Belt Programme that they can access leading scientific knowledge and marine management assistance, as well as being able to share best practice amongst each other for the benefit of all territories and the wider global marine community.

About the author: Kylie Bamford is Head of Marine Conservation in the Overseas Territories team, in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Kylie was involved in establishing the Blue Belt Programme over five years ago, and has been a Programme Director since then. Prior to working in FCDO, Kylie worked in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Marine Management Organisation.

Suggested further reading

Gannon, KE, Hulme, M. (2018) Geoengineering at the “Edge of the World”: Exploring perceptions of ocean fertilisation through the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation. Geo: Geography and Environment

Kelman, I. (2020) Islands of vulnerability and resilience: Manufactured stereotypes? Area

How to Cite: Bamford, K (2022, 16 May) The Blue Belt Programme Geography Directions

1 comment

  1. British Indian Ocean Territory includes Diego Garcia and the Chagos islands which are not British and which have been stolen from the original inhabitants.

    Why is the Blue Belt Programme being used to extend illegal and criminal use of an expropriated land? “The maritime law tribunal of the United Nations has ruled that Britain has no sovereignty over the Chagos Islands.”

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