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Nick Herbert With Congleton MP Ann Winterton in the chair, Westminster Hall hosted a debate entitled "Investigating the Oceans" yesterday. The now defunct Science and Technology Committee published a report with the same name back in 2007. Eighteen months later, MPs were back for a progress report from ministers!

Shadow DEFRA Secretary Nick Herbert spoke for the Conservatives:

"We face an unprecedented crisis in the marine life in our seas and oceans. Research predicts that the world will run out of seafood species that it can fish by 2048 and that the associated loss of marine biodiversity will destroy the ocean’s natural ability to adapt and self-repair. A strong science base is therefore essential if we are to respond to the challenges to our marine ecosystems.

It is possible to identify five key challenges to the marine environment. First, and perhaps the most significant, is climate change and its impact on sea levels. The world’s oceans absorb more than one quarter of the carbon dioxide that the human race generates, and half of that is absorbed in the Southern ocean alone, so oceans and marine systems play a key role both in the debate that we must have about climate change, and in regulating climate systems. There is a danger that meltwater could interrupt the oceans’ natural currents and a particular concern that the gulf stream could slow down or even shut down, meaning less heat for north-west Europe and, therefore, harsher winters.

The second key challenge is fishing in our seas and oceans. Some 70 to 80 per cent. of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited, over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion, and 15 of the world’s 17 largest fisheries are so heavily exploited that their reproductive cycles cannot guarantee continued captures. Demand for fish next year is expected to reach 110 million tonnes, which will outstrip supply. The global crisis is mirrored in our waters. We need to reconnect fisheries domestically, in the European Union and internationally with environmental interests, to ensure that fishing can be conducted in a sustainable way.

The third challenge confronting the marine environment relates to its biodiversity. The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) said that 80 per cent. of the world’s species are found in marine ecosystems, so in addition to the impact of fishing on other animal species, climate change has an impact on biodiversity. The warming of the oceans leads to increased acidity and severe damage to coral reefs. I was struck when I read the comments of Eric Schmidt, Google’s chief executive, when he launched a new Google Earth service in February. Google’s mapping has proved controversial in recent weeks, but one thing that Google Earth does do is allow users to explore the oceans as well as the land. Mr. Schmidt said:

    “In discussions about climate change, the world’s oceans are often overlooked despite being an integral part of the issue. About one third of the carbon dioxide that we emit into the atmosphere ends up in the oceans. Furthermore, biodiversity loss in our oceans in the next 20-30 years will be roughly equivalent to losing an entire Amazon rainforest, but this goes unnoticed because we can’t see it.”

The fourth challenge that we must address is pollution. More than 80 per cent. of marine pollution comes from land-based activities; rivers and streams transport billions of tonnes of eroded sediment into coastal waters; ships discharge oil; there are chemical discharges; and waste, including littering, kills hundreds of thousands marine mammals, birds and countless fish.

Finally, an overlooked form of pollution is noise pollution, which has a particular impact on cetaceans. The International Fund for Animal Welfare has expressed great concern about that and would like us to address in the Marine and Coastal Access Bill. That could be difficult, but these important and, in some cases, threatened species are greatly affected by sounds—man-made ocean noises—that shipping, military sonar and so on inject into the sea. It may prove extremely difficult to address those problems, but we must be aware of that other form of pollution"

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