[Coral-List] The Chagos MPA - Science vs Advocacy

Richard Dunne RichardPDunne at aol.com
Fri Oct 24 09:05:50 EDT 2014

The Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) again posts to this list and draws 
attention to documents on its website. It is unfortunate that once more 
these documents present a viewpoint which is thoroughly misleading.


This is not my heading. It is taken from CCT's recent briefing to 
Parliamentarians (to which our attention is drawn by Charles Sheppard). 
CCT use a term "advocacy science" to mean "selective, misleading or 
incorrect science". They then give what they consider to be several 
examples. I will concern myself with just one to allow the readers of 
this List to make an informed judgment of CCT's claims.

The paper is one that I co-authored with Dr Susana Barbosa and Professor 
Philip Woodworth published in the journal Global & Planetary Change in 
(http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0921818111002098) and 
entitled "Contemporary sea level in the Chagos Archipelago, central 
Indian Ocean".

CCT claim that it showed that " sea level rise is not proven in Chagos 
so will not affect settlement" and then retort that " but the consensus 
shows clearly that it does". Apart from the fact that I disagree with 
what they attribute to our paper, let us consider the facts.

Sheppard (and CCT) has consistently portrayed sea-level rise to be a 
serious problem in the Chagos based on figures initially of 5.4 mm yr-1 
[2003 Chagos Conservation Plan]; 8mm yr-1 [March 2008 Chagos News 31]; 
10 mm yr-1 [July 2008 Chagos News 34]; and in a draft circulated at a 
public meeting in 2011, 12 mm yr-1. They have also claimed that 
sea-level rise in the Chagos is accelerating. My co-author, Prof Philip 
Woodworth, an long-term expert on sea level, is on record as saying that 
these figures are "definitely wrong" [New Scientist 23 Nov 2011 

It was these grossly misleading values that prompted us to write this 
paper, which demonstrated that sea-level rise has been in the order of 
0.16 – 4.56 mm yr-1 across the Chagos sea area (larger values in the 
south and decreasing towards the north) and that at Diego Garcia and in 
the northern atolls the rates of rise were statistically 
non-significant. For reference, present rates of global mean sea-level 
rise are in the order of 3.2 mm yr-1.

After the publication of our paper, Sheppard then changed his tune 
claiming that: "we have known about this for years and I am sure those 
measurements [2.2 mm yr-1 for Diego Garcia] are right" [Letter to New 
Scientist 7 Dec 2011 - 
In January 2013 CCT wrote that “We know that Chagos experiences average 
sea level rises of less than the global average,…...”. But to offset 
this it gave a pessimistic outlook: “it is not consoling to know that 
the next IPCC report looks like it is going to increase the predicted 
global mean sea level rise by about four fold” [Chagos News 41].

Certain words in the abstract of our paper have upset CCT, indeed its 
Secretary wrote to the journal editor in December 2011 in an 
extraordinary attempt to have them removed. We had said that: 
“Collectively, these results suggest that this has been a relatively 
stable physical environment, and that these low-lying coral islands 
should continue to be able to support human habitation, as they have 
done for much of the last 200 years.” We also observed that future 
sea-level rise remained a potential problem.

Our paper represents objective and expert analysis of the facts, not 
just of sea level but also other aspects such as storms and vertical 
land movement. Because it seems we did not present evidence that the 
islands had or were about to become untenable for human habitation, 
these findings have been consistently opposed and/or ignored by CCT. In 
this briefing they go one step further, claiming an opposite 
“consensus”. This is “Several maps and articles produced by e.g. NOAA” 
and an informal brief by Prof Philip Woodworth for the British Indian 
Ocean Territory Science Advisory Group which they suggest contradicts 
our earlier paper (it does not). CCT’s “consensus” is neither published 
or accessible, nor apparently is it peer reviewed, nor does it to our 
knowledge challenge our 2012 paper.

Sheppard and CCT do not explain why its considers our paper “selective, 
misleading, or incorrect science” as we stand accused. The proper course 
of action to challenge a scientific publication (as Sheppard is well 
aware) is to submit a ‘Response’ to the journal or to publish a study 
that challenges the findings. Three years has passed and they have come 
up with nothing other than innuendo.

As further data is added to the satellite altimeter record and as we 
start to understand better the causes of regional sea level variation in 
the oceans so we will be able to make improved assessments of how low 
lying islands such as the Chagos may be affected. Until then we must 
rely on the best available science rather than agenda-led and 
unsubstantiated claims.

Richard Dunne

(1) Chagos News can be downloaded from: 
(2) The Chagos Conservation Trust is a charitable body in the UK. As far 
as I am aware (I am also a CCT member) none of the views expounded in 
the documents have been endorsed by the membership nor have the views of 
members been sought. They appear to be written by a small cabal, led by 
Charles Sheppard.

On 22/10/2014 16:33, Sheppard, Charles wrote:
> There have been several posts lately under the title "The Chagos MPA - what went wrong?”
> As Chair of Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) I would like to note that as far as conservation and research there is concerned, the answer to that question is “Nothing went wrong”.  There will be several government funded and private Foundation funded science expeditions to the area in the coming year.
> Concerns have mostly focussed on the Chagossian issue, often conflated with the initiatives to conserve one of the best and last remaining, rich reef sites in the world.  The Chagossian issues are certainly important, and CCT has had a meeting with the All Party Parliamentary Group interested in this.  We have posted two docs towww.chagos-trust.org  : both the briefing asked of us beforehand, and our notes post-meeting, prepared and posted for our members.  Note that these documents explain only part of the total work done by CCT and its numerous partners and collaborators.
> I have also had some private correspondence concerning Chagossians and hope the work we do regarding this (outlined in the documents) is understood.  I would note that CCT is not the government and we do not speak for it, though we DO strongly support the government’s decision to create strict protection around this set of coral reefs and atolls including closure to the industrial tuna fleets (another opponent of the tuna fishing ban).   Over 100 scientists now have researched there, with double that number engaged without visiting yet - a large number of us in other words.  Conservation decisions by BIOT were and are based on the scores of published papers produced as a result of this, many by CCT members and many more not.  For summaries, see the five chapters in the UK Overseas Territories volume published in the Coral Reefs of the World series by Springer (series eds. Riegl and Dodge). The BIOT Government recently also produced an interim management plan, which is encouraging, a
> mbitious, and relies firmly on science.  More and more, scientists are ‘using’ Chagos reefs as a reference site to learn what reefs did, could and one day might again look like.
> I am sure all readers of this list are well aware of the dire and declining state of reefs globally.  Recent postings to this list concern why we are not managing to do much in arresting declines.  I hope many are aware now too of the exceptional condition of Chagos atolls.  However, climate change and related factors may mean that global factors will catch up even with these most isolated atolls.  (We are watching with great concern the current warming trend especially).  It seems to me that, with the seemingly remorseless global decline of reef and ocean biota, the need for conservation is increasingly self-evident – for the sake of people.
> Now, an invitation: if within reach of London, do come to our annual scientific meeting at the Zoological Society of London on Friday 5 December (link 1 below) to hear about many more sets of results obtained this year.  I look forward to seeing some of you there!  It is timed to occur the day before Reef Conservation UKs annual meeting in the same place (link 2), which also is always a great day of information.
> 1.http://chagos-trust.org/news/chagos-conservation-2014-annual-conference-0
> 2.http://www.zsl.org/conservation/whats-on/reef-conservation-uk-2014
> Best wishes
> Charles
> --------------------------
> Professor Charles Sheppard OBE
> School of Life Sciences
> University of Warwick, UK
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