Matthew Offord is MP for Hendon.
This highest of praise, offered to ConHome by Zac Goldsmith and Nick Hurd in 2015 at the inception of the Blue Belt policy to increase marine protection across the UK Overseas Territories, was entirely justified.
Speaking at the 2016 Our Ocean conference Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office minister, outlined the Government’s intention to build on marine reserves already established around the British Indian Ocean territory (2009) and Pitcairn Islands (2015) with further protections around Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Very few nations are in the privileged position of being able to demonstrate their commitment to ocean protection through action on a globally significant scale. Fewer still have opportunity afforded to the UK to protect the sheer diversity of marine environments – more than 90 per cent of the biodiversity for which the UK is responsible exists in the UKOTs.
So, how far have we come?
Work is underway to deliver with the governments of Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. However, it is vital that these remote communities, with barely 1,000 people between them, are provided with a guarantee of continued support to help police their vast 1.1 million square kilometre marine zones when the Government’s current funding for enforcing them expires in March 2020. Only this will enable them to start making long-term decisions on behalf of their people and our oceans.
Ahead of this however 285 MPs, leading members of the UK’s marine biological community, and Lewis Pugh, the UN Patron of the Oceans (currently swimming the channel to raise the profile of ocean conservation), have called for the full protection of the South Sandwich Islands in 2018.
This outstanding place lies within the existing South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area – a “Marine Protected Area” that only affords full protection to two per cent of its waters, the rest being managed as a sustainable fishery.
And herein lies the concern. Too many marine environments, globally, are being badged as “Marine Protected Areas’, when in reality they are not. In light of this worrying dynamic, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently reissued its guidelines for categorising Marine Protected Areas.
This is not to say that well-managed fisheries are not to be lauded. Indeed, the Government of South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands deserve credit for the high standards to which the fisheries around South Georgia operate. However, to borrow a terrestrial analogy, we do not accord an organic or high-welfare farming operation with the status of a national park.
Are we splitting hairs? Surely it’s all good progress? Maybe. But if the UK is serious about the stated commitment to being a global player on ocean conservation it needs to grasp the nettle.
As a party, our 2017 manifesto reaffirmed the Blue Belt commitment to “establish the largest marine sanctuaries anywhere in the world”. Not well-managed fisheries. Marine sanctuaries.
To reiterate – sustainable fisheries are a great thing and UK science and leadership should remain at the forefront of global efforts.
But the Blue Belt was conceived to seize on the UK’s uniquely privileged position to protect some of these amazing places. Failure to do so would be at best disingenuous to true aspirations of the policy; at worst willfully misleading to the overwhelming public and political expectation, evident through the Blue Planet 2 series, that the UK will show leadership.
Why does this matter?
Partly, because it runs the risk of distorting progress towards global targets. As much as 6.5 per cent of the world’s oceans are designated in MPAs. However, by some estimates less than two per cent is fully protected. Indeed, the UK’s own Blue Belt target of 4 million square kilometres “protected” by 2020 could fall well short.
It also matters because it is critical that such worrying precedents do not permeate the vital discussions going on within supranational fora to protect the High Seas and Antarctic marine environments. These places lie beyond the jurisdiction of states and will require diplomatic leadership to ensure collective action. As the United Nations embarks on negotiations to establish a new Treaty to protect the High Seas, strong and credible leadership from the UK will be essential to delivering meaningful progress.
Which is why the volcanic archipelago of the South Sandwich Islands, thousands of miles away in the Southern Ocean and populated only by millions of penguins, whales and seals is so important.
It has not been fished for 25 years. Fully protecting this globally recognised biodiversity hotspot can be achieved without displacing fishing activity (or resulting loss in Government revenue) and within existing Government budgets and legislation.
Such a move would increase levels of full protection within the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands Marine Protected Area from the current two per cent to approximately 50 per cent, and sit adjacent to well-managed fisheries around South Georgia.
More than 500,000 square kilometres of fisheries managed to the highest standards, directly adjacent to more than 500,000 square kilometres of highly-protected outstanding environment, is a template worthy of global promotion and the kind of accolades Goldsmith and Hurd spoke of 2015.