[Coral-List] Past human impacts in the Chagos

Szmant, Alina szmanta at uncw.edu
Thu Oct 7 15:32:12 EDT 2010

Hello All:

Humans have been depleting coral reef resources for millennia, not just now in modern times.  However, with so many more of us, and ovr development and crowding our impact is much greater than just overfishing a few fishes.  Take a look at the paper by two paleoanthropologists, Wing and Wing (2001) Prehistoric fisheries in the Caribbean.  Coral Reefs 20: 1-8

Alina Szmant

Dr. Alina M. Szmant
Professor of Marine Biology
Center for Marine Science and Dept of Biology and Marine Biology
University of North Carolina Wilmington
5600 Marvin Moss Ln
Wilmington NC 28409 USA
tel:  910-962-2362  fax: 910-962-2410  cell: 910-200-3913

-----Original Message-----
From: coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov [mailto:coral-list-bounces at coral.aoml.noaa.gov] On Behalf Of David Evans
Sent: Thursday, October 07, 2010 12:09 PM
To: coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov
Cc: Rachel.Jones at zsl.org
Subject: [Coral-List] Past human impacts in the Chagos


My apologies. I certainly accept your correction of my broad statement. As I 
indicated in my post, I studied the reefs and fishes of Diego Garcia in 2004. My 
specialty and focus is not ornithology or island terrestrial ecology itself, 
though I fully understand that they are connected and cannot be separated. 

In discussing the MPA, my focus has been on the "Marine" aspect of it and the 
potential of re-settlement for impact in the water and its ecosystem (which I do 
agree is connected to the land - eg., runoff, effluent, leeching, landfill 

Maybe those terms should be included as well in this discussion - terrestrial 
vs. marine. Surely terrestrial island habitats need protecting as well, but are 
we tying them, in the same breath, to the plight of coral reefs and the oceans 
around the world? Does protecting the terrestrial side of it have the same 

I do still feel that my statement should be considered as accurate as originally 
intended in relation to the marine environment (lagoons, barachois, reefs, and 
open water). Over several centuries, their overall impact seems to have been 
rather small.

I do not know if the Chagossians (originally and at that time called the 
"Ilois") harvested sea cucumbers, but at the time of the establishment of the US 
Base on DG, sea cucumber populations could safely be called abundant (Stoddart 
et al. 1971). However, by the time of our survey in 2004, they were noted to be 
in decline in the lagoon. The reason was unknown, but harvesting was a common 
practice by the local Filipino workers (DoN 2005 - Marine Biological Survey of 

Fishing pressure did exist there in 2004 and reefs were being impacted by 
anchorage activity and runoff in the lagoon. Seaward algal platforms had been 
dynamited and harvested for landfill on the lagoon side in building up the US 
Base (DoN 2005).

Runoff and waste from the original plantations surely affected the reefs. And of 
course there must have been fishing pressure. I do not intend to minimize or 
'write off' the impacts of those activities from the colony and later 
plantations (under the Chagossians themselves). But in order for the terms 
"Pristine" and "Near-Pristine" to keep being used, can we ask how severe were 
those impacts? How quick the 'recovery' since their eviction last century?

However, the passages you present in your message brings up an important point. 
It seems to me that prospects of re-settlement now in the 21st Century are 
continually compared to the original colonization during the Age of Imperialism 
(which I think was rather damaging wherever it took place, no matter which 
nation was involved).

That is one of the "fear tactics" I was referring to earlier (along with the 
comment about the Indian Ocean Sea Cow).

It also brings to mind (and raises the question) how the "advertising campaign" 
for creating the No-Take Conservation Zone MPA keeps using the terminology of 
"Pristine" and only more recently "Near-Pristine" when trying to sell the idea 
and importance of protecting this last piece of "untouched" island wilderness in 
the world. Certainly the folks in charge of public relations for the Chagos MPA 
have been in touch with the researchers and have been made aware of this reality 
(on the terrestrial side of some of the islands at least)? They seem to want it 
both ways.

But what effect would a 21st Century ecological ethic along with 21st Century 
capabilities and procedures have on a limited re-settlement of the islands? 
Especially if that re-settlement were made within the framework of maintaining 
the goodness of an MPA both for the sake of conservation itself and for 
protecting the vested interests of the 'settlers?'

In a perfect world, there would be several options for this crisis not to exist: 
The Portuguese never discovered the islands. The French and British never 
colonized it (or did so with an appropriate conservation ethic). The 
Chagossians' human rights were never abused forty years ago when they were 
removed from their homes (or several hundred years ago when they were brought to 
the islands as slaves). Or maybe the Chagossians don't want to return (and the 
Maldivians don't want the rights to their EEZ and the Mauritians don't want 
their former territory back) ... and the full No-Take MPA can be established in 
good conscience and health. 

But this is not a perfect world and it's not worth trying to re-live history 
that way.

So given the current situation (that the Chagossians DO indeed exist, they WERE 
wrongfully removed, and at least some WANT to return in some capacity)... Can an 
MPA at the Chagos in the 21st Century be successful and incorporate the 
Chagossians at the same time? Can they both move forward together somehow?

Those are some of the questions that I feel ought to be looked at with Honesty 
and Good Faith.

David J. Evans

Message: 4
Date: Mon, 4 Oct 2010 16:31:10 +0100
From: "Rachel  Jones" <Rachel.Jones at zsl.org>
Subject: [Coral-List] Past human impacts in the Chagos (Rachel Jones)
To: <coral-list at coral.aoml.noaa.gov>
Message-ID: <41E1ED29E5E8E34BBDD8B82CFA1A9D04076F08D1 at ZSL26.zsl.org>
Content-Type: text/plain;    charset="us-ascii"


Your message suggests that Stoddart et al (Atoll Research Bulletin No.
149, 1971) shows that human impact in the Chagos was 'rather small
before the eviction of the islands human inhabitants', but a quick look
through that reference comes up with the following quotes:

"Diego Garcia, which is now (1971)  largely devastated from an
ornithological point of view by nearly two centuries of the activities
of man and other introduced animals"

"Guano has been exported from Diego Garcia...indicating the presence of
important seabird colonies in the past...though they are now much
reduced on the inhabited islands"

"rapidly and successfully colonised by the French who with the
assistance of slave labour...soon felled the majority of the native
woodland and replaced it with exceptionally productive coconut
plantations wherever there was room for them"

"the coconut plantations on this atoll (Salomon) always appear to have
been particularly prosperous and the numerous human population in
association with its small size does not appear to have been compatible
with a rich avifauna"

"it is one of the numerous unpublicized tragedies of insular ornithology
that their (the Chagos) natural history was not investigated before
major changes had resulted from human colonisation of the larger

There is to this day a legacy of coconut palms and rats that are still
numerous on previously inhabited islands to the detriment of birds,
turtles and native plants. So past impacts from humans and the species
they brought with them seem, at least for terrestrial habitats and
animals, to have actually been quite significant.


Rachel Jones

Rachel Jones

Deputy Team Leader


ZSL London Zoo

Regents Park



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