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The human dimensions of marine heritage conservation in the British Overseas Territories: an analysis of the 'Blue Belt' network

Unit(s) of assessment: Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology; Law; Social Work and Social Policy

Research theme: Global Heritage

School: School of Arts and Humanities


The vast majority of global fish stocks are over-exploited. Receding coral reefs due to climate change, bleaching, point source and diffuse pollution events, and other forms of human-induced degradation are removing vital breeding habitat for fish, exacerbating the problem of overfishing. To address these threats, the UK Government has published plans for a ‘Blue Belt’ – a network of large Marine Protection Areas (MPAs) enclosing 4 million km2 of overseas territorial waters by 2020.

The Blue Belt would become one of the world’s largest enclosures for marine heritage conservation, involving all 14 UK overseas territories. These territories accommodate over 90% of the UK's biodiversity, meriting five UNESCO World heritage sites of natural and cultural significance as well as 15 Ramsar designated wetlands of major international importance. While potentially desirable from a conservation perspective, concerns are being raised about the integration of national security, and private sector interests, with marine conservation.

The Blue Belt may also stand to undermine the biodiversity targets it aims to address. Many of the large MPAs do not offer protection to the most biodiverse inshore reef environments, favouring instead the least-threatened remote areas of ocean that are residual to commercial fishing. The human dimensions – the social, political, and economic costs and benefits of these very remote MPAs – is also yet to be determined. Inevitably, an understanding of these human dimensions is what the Blue Belt’s success depends on.

Addressing the Challenge

This project will map out paths towards a clearer understanding of these human dimensions. We propose a cross-scalar analysis of the Blue Belt, separating out global, national and local priorities. The Territory of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha is the most populated overseas territory and forms the Blue Belt’s political buckle.

This territory will be used as a case study for analysis, from which our findings will enable a more credible UK research council bid to address the human dimensions of large MPAs over the whole of the Blue Belt. Our provisional findings will also inform a knowledge exchange workshop to be hosted at NTU in collaboration with relevant interest groups, including the UK Marine Management Organisation (MMO), the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), and Great British Ocean NGO partners. The workshop will inform the production of a Blue Belt guidebook, to help steer future heritage conservation efforts in the overseas territories.


The project takes advantage of the excellent range of interdisciplinary expertise at NTU, bringing together researchers from across traditional disciplinary divides. These disciplines include international relations; Dr Roy Smith, and Geography and Environmental Sciences; Dr Peter Howson.

The project builds on findings from Peter Howson’s research exploring the human dimensions of enclosures for conservation in the Asia Pacific region. Peter is an early career researcher with a growing profile in natural resource management and environmental governance.

Elizabeth Kirk’s research in marine law and governance has been supported by a number of high-profile research grants from the AHRC, British Academy, ESRC, European Commission, Royal Society of Edinburgh and Society of Legal Scholars, and has provided expert advice to international and national agencies, such as UNEP and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.

Roy Smith brings expertise in facilitating knowledge exchange projects. His policy-related research agenda includes collaborations with regional and national NGOs and small island developing state governments from across the Asia Pacific and beyond. He convenes the European Commission Development Days and leads Pacific regional consultations and development programmes in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. He is a member of the Council of the Pacific Islands Society of the United Kingdom and Ireland (PISUKI) and the Think Global Advisory Council.

Making a Difference

A very limited amount of literature has been produced concerning the Blue Belt initiative. None has been published concerning its various human dimensions. The project will address this knowledge deficit. Our findings from this South Atlantic research project will engage influential stakeholders, through a knowledge exchange workshop, to ensure international impact, especially for communities of small island developing states.

The project will also help the team forge new research agendas and develop inter-disciplinary connections between NTU Schools. The project builds upon our previous work on the human dimensions of marine management. This includes work in the British Indian Ocean Territories (Smith), the Republic of Palau (Howson and Smith), the high seas (Kirk, Howson and Smith) and on Marine Governance more widely (Kirk). Together we argue that critical research disconnected from practical matters can have perverse outcomes for practitioners who are ultimately working towards similar goals.

Uncritical practice-oriented research has the potential to lead to a dilution of core environmental justice and conservation values. The practical-critique we propose will provide ways of researching large MPAs that have practical impact for stakeholders while maintaining critical insights. This research therefore proposes a cross-disciplinary analysis of large MPAs with novel contributions to knowledge expected across the disciplinary range.

This research will contribute to the development of society with clear socio-economic impact. It will promote the management and conservation of cultural, natural, tangible and intangible forms of global heritage to meet humanities most pressing environmental and societal challenges. The project will enhance the University’s capacity in interdisciplinary heritage research projects, fostering partnerships between NTU researchers and user communities, to include the broader heritage sector, policy makers, businesses and commercial enterprises.