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Ocean Refuge the Size of Great Britain Announced

The new conservation measure will protect Seychelles from illegal fishing for generations to come.

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Accompanied by a potato cod, a Pristine Seas diver surveys the seafloor during a scientific expedition to the outer islands of Seychelles.

The government of the Seychelles has created two new marine protected areas in the country's remote Indian Ocean archipelago. The sanctioned areas will cover more than 81,000 square miles—a swath of space about the size of Great Britain.

The protected areas will be rolled out in two phases. The first phase will cover 29,000 square miles around the remote Aldabra Group in the country's outer islands, and the second phase will protect 52,000 square miles of deep water. The total acreage will make up 16 percent of the country's ocean territory, and it is part of an ambitious project to protect nearly 160,000 square miles of the country by 2022.

"The Seychelles waters really are some of the finest on Earth and it's a complete delight that the government has protected them," says Paul Rose, a National Geographic explorer who led an expedition in Seychelles in 2015.

Results from the Pristine Seas study helped provide the country's government with the scientific proof it needed to establish the marine areas as protected. The Nature Conservancy teamed up with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and other private funders to refinance the country's debt and help the Seychelles make the marine protected areas possible.

Saving Seychelles

Located nearly 1,000 miles off the coast of East Africa, Seychelles is a thriving ecosystem made up of 115 islands. The biodiverse area houses scores of species, from endangered dugongs and turtles to 100,000 rare giant tortoises that are only found in this region. Tuna and sharks live in the waters off the islands, which also serve as nesting grounds for rare migratory birds.

The newly protected areas will serve as a sanctuary for some of the planet's most endangered marine life while supporting sustainable fisheries and tourism. Since 99 percent of the country is ocean, its 100,000 human residents rely heavily on marine resources for their economy.

With its white beaches and crystal-clear waters, Seychelles may seem like a pristine island nation. But the environment's diverse ecosystem is threatened. Foreign fishing boats often encroach on Seychelles waters to illegally poach loads of sharks and tuna and take them away to outside markets.

"Until this marine protected area had been agreed, foreign fishing boats could just go through these waters and overfish," Rose says.

The island nation is also threatened by the warming temperatures and rising sea levels brought on by climate change. Healthy reef ecosystems can help to mitigate climate change and have positive effects on the environment, so establishing marine protected areas will help Seychelles in the long run.

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Great barracudas are one of the myriad marine species that populate the waters of Aldabra Atoll.

To investigate the hidden threats to the island ecosystem, Rose and the Pristine Seas expedition team completed 260 dives in Seychelles. With information gathered from their fieldwork, they then submitted a scientific report and short film to back up the claim that the marine area needed to be protected.

"It's got to be science-based," Rose says. "And so we agreed to fill those gaps, fill in those missing pieces of the jigsaw, as it were. This helped the Seychelles government to make the decision that they made today. "

Meet the Giant Cave-Dwelling Tortoises of the Seychelles

In the future, the hope is that Seychelles can continue to be the pristine tourist destination many people see it as today.

"This reinforces the view that people have of Seychelles," Rose says. "It will probably surprise a lot of people that this [protection] would even be needed."