Current conservation problems on Ascension are mainly results of the introduction of alien species since the island’s discovery. The main effect of this has been the almost total exclusion of breeding seabirds, other than Sooty Terns Sterna fuscata, from all but cliff sites on the main island due to predation by cats and rats. This is now being addressed with a feral cat eradication programme nearing completion and plans for intensive rat control measures being drawn up. Cat control has already had a positive effect, with small numbers of both Brown Sula leucogaster and Masked Boobies S. dactylatra having returned to nest at inland sites.
Rehabilitation of former seabird breeding areas is, however, further hampered by the spread of an invasive plant, Mexican thorn. This threatens to render some former colony sites unusable and is also encroaching on beach-crest nesting sites of Green Turtles. A control programme has been initiated.
The only specifically protected area established to date is Boatswainbird Island. A conservation management plan for Ascension has, however, proposed protected status for the whole of the main island and its associated stacks. Access to Boatswainbird Island is only allowed under scientific permit. This has proved difficult to enforce, however, and breeding birds have been subject to disturbance from unauthorised landings. Passing ships may also deliberately put birds up by sounding their sirens in order to provide a spectacle for passengers. This practice appears to have become less frequent in recent years, however. At the present time efforts are being made to increase tourism on Ascension and this may eventually put more pressure on sensitive areas, unless carefully managed.
There are also conservation problems associated with the wider marine environment. There is a significant risk of over-fishing in the seas around Ascension, with consequent effects on the food supply for the island’s seabirds. Increased long-line fishing also poses a potential direct threat to the birds themselves.
The outlook for conservation on Ascension is generally encouraging, however. The recent appointment of a full-time conservation officer and the establishment of Ascension Conservation have been very positive developments and have raised the profile of nature conservation on the island. Strong conservation legislation is in place and there are plans to increase environmental education in the island’s schools.