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If Scotland votes for independence today, then we can expect the divorce settlement to dominate our politics for the next year or two. Dividing up the assets and liabilities won’t be easy – indeed it will throw up issues that have barely been considered so far.

For instance, what becomes of the British Empire? The UK still administers fourteen overseas territories; would these be divvied up between an independent Scotland and the rest of the UK or would they remain with the latter by default?

It so happens that three of the UK Overseas Territories have been in the news lately, but for a much more positive reason. Last week, Zac Goldsmith, Stanley Johnson, the RSPB, the Blue Marine Foundation and the Pew Trusts launched a pamphlet which calls upon the Government to set up marine reserves around the Pitcairn Islands, Ascension Island and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands:

“The UK’s Overseas Territories harbour 90% of the UK’s biodiversity and through these, the UK has the fifth largest, and possibly the most diverse, marine zone in the world (6.8 million km2, or 1.9% of the world’s oceans).

“The establishment of fully protected marine reserves (areas safe from harmful extracting industries) in most of these Territories is a real and easily achievable solution to marine protection. This decision lies ultimately with the UK Government.”

This isn’t just a nice idea – it’s an urgent necessity:

“The oceans are under increasing pressure from the combined effects of climate change, overexploitation, pollution and habitat loss. Overall, it is estimated that 90% of all large fish are gone and that 15 of the 17 largest fisheries in the world are on the brink of collapse. A study published in Science predicted all the worlds’ fisheries will collapse by 2048 if trends are allowed to continue. The United Nations have put the annual loss of revenue to global fishing fleets due to overfishing and poor management at $50bn…

“Recognising that unless action is taken, the world is in danger of losing entire marine ecosystems within the next generation, governments have agreed an international target of protecting 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020. However to date progress has been slow, with less than 3% being under any form of protection and less than 1% being fully protected.”

Britain has a unique opportunity to take a stand and protect vast tracts of the ocean, but we can’t just impose these Marine Protected Areas on the local inhabitants – or can we?

Ascension and South Georgia don’t have permanent populations, so the issue doesn’t arise. Pitcairn has about fifty permanent residents, but they’re very much in favour of the proposal:

“Not only would fully protected marine reserves help safeguard the important biodiversity of these Territories, they would also give them a positive image and visibility – a global brand – which would move the Territories from being almost unknown islands into important and much more widely recognised global assets.”

The key practical consideration is enforcement. Automated surveillance systems could do a lot of the work – and as long as we and our allies still have a naval presence in the relevant areas, fishing vessels would have to think twice before going out of their way to fish illegally.

The days of Empire are long gone, but to a significant extent Britannia does still rule the waves. She should use that power to safeguard what’s left of the marine environment.

7 comments for: How the remnants of the British Empire can protect the remnants of the marine environment

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