1. The atolls and islands comprising Chagos are a biodiversity hotspot of global conservation significance in a remote part of the central Indian Ocean.
2. This study examines the condition of the archipelago’s coastal ecosystems by rapid environmental assessment at 21 sites/islands, which were also investigated a decade earlier using the same methodology. Major changes in ecosystem structure and environmental disturbance were determined.
3. Coral fish abundance was significantly lower in 2006 than 1996. Decrease in the physical structural complexity of the reefs, as a result of coral bleaching and mortality induced by the 1998 warming event, may have been a contributing factor.
4. Evidence of collecting/fishing was significantly greater in 2006 than 1996. This is attributed mainly to an illegal fishery for holothurians (sea cucumbers), which has expanded over recent years and now exerts substantial pressure on the resource. The significant decline observed in beach wood, a readily accessible fuel for fishing camps, is consistent with this.
5. Solid waste on islands was high (median 2 to 20 items m1 beach) in both 1996 and 2006. Potentially harmful biological impacts, determined from other studies, include entanglement, toxic effects and provision of transport for invasives or other ‘hitchhiker’ species.
6. Significantly higher bird abundances were recorded in protected areas than ‘unprotected’ areas, attributed mainly to absence of predation by rats.
7. Rapid assessment augments more comprehensive ecosystem investigations. It provides a valuable snapshot of environmental conditions based upon a broad suite of features (ecosystems and disturbances) determined, concurrently, within the same site inspection quadrats and using the same scale of assessment.