Sailors from HMS Tamar protected rare turtle nesting grounds and helped with a huge illegal fishing haul during three weeks in an Indian Ocean paradise.
Crew of the patrol ship concentrated on safeguarding the environment in the British Indian Ocean Territory, ensuring the remote island chain’s rare wildlife was not disturbed by the illegal actions of humanity.
They found its shores littered with tonnes of rubbish and fishermen flouting international law, trawling the territory’s expansive, protected waters – roughly the size of Texas – for its rich stocks of rare fish.
The chain of nearly 60 islands, led by Diego Garcia, lies more than 1,100 miles from the southern tip of India and over 2,000 miles from Africa’s Eastern Seaboard.
HMS Tamar – on a five-year mission to the Indo-Asia-Pacific with her sister ship HMS Spey to work with allies and partners, fly the flag for the UK and underscore Britain’s commitment to the region – worked with island authorities to clear the most recent rubbish and ward off illegal fishing.
Tamar’s sailors helped unload, count and weigh a huge haul of now-dead fish in grim conditions – hot, slimy, smelly – after the islands’ patrol vessel Grampian Endurance seized a trawler fishing illegally.
Among other protected species, the team found mobula, sting rays, sharks and other protected species in the trawl. Authorities imposed a heavy fine on the fishermen.
“Over the past two years there has been a major increase in illegal fishing, explained George Balcombe, Strategic Environmental Officer for the BIOT Administration.
“Researchers who have been working in the territory for years have observed a significant decline in several keystone species, notably sharks.
“The levels of fishing are unprecedented and the support of Royal Navy vessels like HMS Tamar is invaluable in combating this ecologically disastrous activity. The presence of the Royal Navy sends a clear message to the fishing communities about our commitment to protecting the marine protected area.”
Equally damaging to the territory’s delicate eco-balance is the waste washed ashore – plastic bottles, shipping floats, fishermen’s nets, empty drink cans, glass bottles, polystyrene, flip flops – which pollutes some of the cleanest waters in the Indian Ocean and harms wildlife from birds caught in netting to harming the nesting grounds of endangered hawksbill turtles.
“The beach clean was a really important job for us,” said Sub-Lieutenant Laurie Wellesbury, a trainee Marine Engineer Officer.
“I think we’re all more conscious about how much waste we’re producing, particularly plastic, and the impact it has on the environment. It was good to be able to make a small contribution to cleaning up our beaches.”
Royal Navy Reservist and marine scientist, Dr Imogen Napper, who specialises in water-borne plastic pollution, added: “The beaches of Diego Garcia are globally important for turtle nesting, with endangered green turtle and critically endangered hawksbill turtle populations of the Western Indian Ocean nesting here annually.
“By removing marine litter from these remote beaches, HMS Tamar has helped to support turtle conservation within the area.”
The rubbish collected by the sailors was subsequently separated and either sent for recycling or disposed of if it couldn’t be reused.
With few places in the islands more than a couple of metres above sea level, those who live there are acutely aware of climate change in particular.
“Science carried out in the Territory is of global importance,” George said. “Over 30 articles were published in major journals in 2022 alone.”
Tamar is, with Spey, the greenest ship in the Navy, thanks to adaptations to her diesel exhaust that reduce emissions by 90 per cent, and a ballast water management system, allowing her to patrol the world’s most sensitive areas subjected to the strictest emission restrictions.
“Tamar’s green credentials are particularly pertinent given that the archipelago sits within the world’s largest marine protected area. We very much enjoyed working closely with our BIOT colleagues, to understand enforcement practices which help preserve and protect this remarkable ocean ecosystem,” said Commander Teilo Elliot-Smith.