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Britain can lead the way in restoring our oceans by strengthening our network of protected areas

4 min read

Globally our oceans are at a tipping point. To reverse this we must establish fully protected, no catch zones to give our marine wildlife space to recover.

Stripped of vast swathes of its inhabitants and choking on emissions, for too many years we have denigrated one of our greatest economic assets: the ocean. The theme for World Ocean Day today is “Life and Livelihoods”, which could not be more prescient. By strengthening our network of protected areas, the UK government can lead the way in restoring our oceans and the services they provide, including replenishing fish stocks in coastal communities like my constituency of North Devon. 

The ocean is the main source of protein for more than a billion people, produces half of the planet’s oxygen, regulates our climate, and has absorbed one third of our carbon emissions.

The UK’s fishing industry alone is worth almost £1 billion to our economy. In North Devon, many local businesses and families rely on the maritime economy, and it is right that we do all we can to level it up as we Build Back Better.

Protected areas must go further and restrict environmentally harmful practices

The Dasgupta Review into the economics of biodiversity, commissioned by the UK Treasury, highlighted how the ‘ecosystem services’ that underpin our economic prosperity and resilience are not currently priced in by markets or accounted for by governments.

We should recognise the economic value of nature’s services. For instance, the average whale sequesters 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide over its lifetime, which combined with its contribution to fishery enhancement and ecotourism, has led the IMF to value each one at more than $2 million, or over $1 trillion for all great whales in 2019.

However, globally our oceans are at a tipping point, with 90% of big fish populations depleted and over a third of marine mammals under threat of extinction. 

The UK’s seas have failed to meet government standards on good environmental health, and we have lost vast swathes of our carbon and species rich habitats, including 85% of our saltmarshes and 90% of our seagrass meadows - both of which can protect coastal communities from flooding and erosion.

To reverse this trend, we need to properly protect 30% of the world’s ocean by the end of this decade, an effort the UK is spearheading though its Global Ocean Alliance.

Our Blue Belt programme provides enhanced protection to an area larger than India around our Oversea Territories. The UK has also established a domestic network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) which cover more than a third of our waters, designated to protect specific seascapes or species.

But these protected areas must go further and restrict environmentally harmful practices.

Last year I welcomed Lord Benyon’s review into Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which recommended establishing fully protected, no catch zones to give our marine wildlife space to recover.

Evidence suggests that fully protected zones could enrich coastal communities like those in my constituency of North Devon, with larger and more diverse fish stocks spilling over into surrounding waters for local fishers.

A recent report found that extending this level of protection to 30% of our MPA network, and effectively managing the rest, could yield benefits worth £10.5 billion in tourism and recreation and support thousands of jobs in those sectors. 

To ensure our protected areas are effectively managed, we should make use of our new post-Brexit freedoms to ban bottom trawling from our offshore MPAs. This would protect the vast swathes of carbon stored in our seabed - known as ‘blue carbon’.

A recent report found that emissions from trawling in UK waters could be on equal footing with emissions from agriculture. As a Blue Carbon Champion in Parliament for the Marine Conservation Society, this is something I feel strongly about, and will be speaking about in my debate on World Ocean Day 2021.

This heightened domestic ambition could support the UK's effort at the UN for effective international cooperation to protect international waters. The high seas account for two thirds of the world’s ocean, so securing their effective conservation through the establishment and management of protected areas is an important prerequisite for protecting 30% of the global ocean by 2030. 

Thanks to successive Conservative governments, the UK is a global ocean champion. We should now strengthen our international leadership in marine protection with greater domestic ambitions, and allow nature to bounce back, safeguarding our economy and planet for future generations.

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