Skip to main content

Oceans and Marine Ecosystems

Volume 548: debated on Wednesday 11 July 2012

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray.

This debate is important for the opportunity not only to highlight in Parliament the plight of our oceans but to focus more on the international dimension of protecting them, including the high seas beyond national jurisdictions. Thankfully, the issue is now coming to the attention of international policy makers—it was not even raised at Rio in 1992, but became one of the most high-visibility issues at Rio+20 this year. Although Rio fell a long way short of the actions identified by scientists as crucial, its decisions were, in the words of Professor Alex Rogers of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean,

“urgent, important and game changing measures which should be immediately implemented by governments as a direct response to the oceans text.”

I hope today’s debate is timely in focusing on the role that the Government should play in making progress. Britain can make a real difference. The United Kingdom, through its overseas territories, is responsible for the world’s fifth largest marine area after the US, France, Australia and Russia, amounting to nearly 2% of the world’s oceans. We are, therefore, a major player, with a duty to act.

I will outline the scale of the crisis facing the world’s oceans. Oceans and seas are of course critical to sustaining the earth’s life support systems and to our survival. Covering 72% of the earth’s surface, oceans and seas moderate our climate by absorbing heat and around 30% of global CO2 emissions. They are the habitat of nearly 50% of all species and, as a result, are vital for global food security—providing 2.6 billion people with their primary source of protein—and for the well-being of many national economies, especially in developing countries.

The health of the oceans, however, is under threat. Organisations such as Greenpeace, with its “Defending our Oceans” campaign, the World Wildlife Fund—WWF—and many others have been campaigning to raise awareness of the findings of marine scientists, which I hope to give expression to in this Chamber. The findings in the IPSO report published last June are particularly shocking. It said that the seas are degenerating faster than anyone had predicted because of the cumulative effect of a number of severe individual stresses—from climate change and sea water acidification to widespread chemical pollution and gross overfishing. In particular, it said that the world’s oceans are facing an unprecedented loss of species, from large fish to tiny coral, comparable to the great mass extinctions of prehistory. Approximately 90% of the big predatory fish in our oceans, such as sharks and tuna, have been fished out since the 1950s. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 85% of global marine fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, a subject to which I shall return.

Scientists are also discovering growing areas of the ocean that suffer from hypoxia—regions that are starved of oxygen—caused by warmer sea temperatures, which is also increasing sea levels and changing ocean currents. Whole species of fish are at risk due to the temperature rise. They simply cannot survive in the changed conditions. Pollution is also damaging our seas. Although oil spills from tanker accidents are among the more visible and more talked-about pollutants, their impact is less than that from other sources, which include domestic sewage, industrial discharges, urban and industrial run-off, accidents, spillage, explosions, sea dumping, plastic debris, mining, agricultural nutrients and pesticides.

Not only are there severe declines in many fish species, and an unparalleled rate of regional extinction of some habitat types, such as mangrove and seagrass meadows, but some whole marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, could disappear this century in what has been described as

“a first for mankind—the extinction of an entire ecosystem”.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this vital debate. I do not want to anticipate the rest of her speech, but does she agree that the evidence shows that rigorously enforced marine conservation zones can make a real difference in starting to turn things around? The lesson is that we, internationally, and the world need to be more ambitious about the scale of such zones and more rigorous in restricting the activity that can take place in them.

I shall come on to marine conservation zones mooted in the UK and what we can do internationally to persuade and join up with other countries to have larger zones.

One of the reasons why I am interested in the issue is that I am a keen scuba diver. At an anecdotal level, I have heard stories about the decline in coral reefs. I was speaking to someone the other day who has been running trips from Bristol for about 30 years. He said that the Great Barrier reef is now almost unrecognisable as the place where he used to dive 20 years ago, because of bleaching and reef damage and disappearance.

Around one fifth of global coral reefs have already been damaged beyond repair, including catastrophic mass bleaching in 1998 when scientists watched between 80% and 90% of all the corals die on the reefs of the Seychelles in a few weeks. Professor Callum Roberts said that

“outside the world of marine science, this global catastrophe has passed largely unseen and unremarked.”

It is predicted that 90% of all coral reefs will be threatened by 2030 and all coral reefs by 2050, if no protective measures are taken.

That goes some way to outlining the scale of the problem, so I now want to discuss the solution. Although Rio was disappointing—I think most people agree—and it mostly reaffirmed existing commitments and promises, it marks a point from which countries should now focus on action and implementation. The High Seas Alliance and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition have set out the key commitments that Governments now need to act upon. I hope that the Minister can make a firm commitment today to implement those decisions and to set out how the Government will do so.

The top commitment was

“to address, on an urgent basis, the issue of the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity of areas beyond national jurisdiction”—

in particular through networks of marine protected areas—

“including by taking a decision on the development of an international instrument under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea”

before the end of the 69th session of the UN General Assembly.

More than 64% of our oceans are beyond the jurisdiction of any one country—the so-called high seas. UNCLOS, the UN convention on the law of the sea, provides the legal framework for governing such areas, but the current structure is highly fragmented and has huge governance gaps. It is widely acknowledged that an agreement under UNCLOS is needed to assist the creation and management of marine reserves; to set a framework for environmental impact assessments to be undertaken before damaging activities are allowed to take place; and to co-ordinate a highly fragmented structure of regional organisations that currently regulate human activities.

The Arctic ocean provides a strong case for reform of UNCLOS as it becomes accessible to deep-sea oil drilling and large industrial-scale fishing fleets with the melting of the permanent sea ice. Regulation of such activities is entirely inadequate. The Environmental Audit Committee has been hearing evidence as part of its inquiry into protecting the Arctic, highlighting grave problems with responses to an accident or major oil spill, which would have even more serious environmental consequences than a similar incident in warmer water.

The biggest disappointment at Rio was that an unholy alliance of the US, Venezuela, Russia and Japan blocked a decision on an agreement under UNCLOS for a maximum of two years, until the 69th session of the UN General Assembly in 2014. Although action is desperately needed now, that at least sets a deadline towards which Governments in favour of an ocean rescue plan can work. The 2014 deadline should not, therefore, be seen as a target date to start looking at how we protect and rescue our oceans, but rather as a deadline by which to have completely decided on the way forward for formal negotiations.

What steps will the UK now take, with the others that spoke in favour of an agreement—such as Brazil, Australia, the European Union, South Africa, India and the Pacific Islands—to move the agenda forward and to urge the UN General Assembly to convene, as a matter of urgency, a diplomatic conference to deliver a new implementing agreement under UNCLOS? What steps will the Minister take towards establishing marine protected areas and marine reserves, creating offshore oil and gas no-go zones in the Arctic, and agreeing a mandatory polar shipping code?

Marine protected areas, which have been mentioned, are underwater national parks that help areas to recover and rebuild, and help fish stocks to be replenished and marine ecosystems and coastal communities to have breathing space and better protection from the effects of climate change. Just before Rio, Australia announced its plan to create the world’s largest network of marine reserves, an area encompassing one third of its territorial waters, where fishing will be restricted and oil and gas exploration banned in the most sensitive areas.

In addition, all 1,192 of the Maldive Islands will become a marine reserve by 2017. The UK’s overseas territories provide an opportunity to designate large marine reserves, such as that created in Chagos under the previous Government. I would be grateful if the Minister reported on the progress the Government are making in supporting overseas territories in designating more large-scale marine reserves in the near future.

What discussions has the Minister and his ministerial colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had with other nations that have overseas territories, such as France, about the creation of marine protected areas or about joint working with them to join up areas where our territories coincide?

I commend my hon. Friend on an excellent speech. Does she agree that it is important that the UK show leadership in this regard, and that it is very disappointing that our network of 127 marine protected areas is two years late? There are even suggestions that the Government might drastically reduce the number of such areas, thereby rendering them completely useless in environmental terms.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention. He has done a great deal of work in this area and, indeed, has been trying to get a debate on the topic since Rio.

I was just about to come on to the subject of the UK’s marine conservation zones. If we are to try to encourage other countries to sign up to marine protected areas, we need to get our own house in order. The Government have delayed designating any new marine conservation zones until 2013, failing to fulfil the promise they made at the 2002 Earth summit to do so by 2012. They are now shifting the goalposts by raising the evidence bar for designation. There is real concern that the Government may be preparing the ground for designating between just 27 to 40 sites out of the 127 sites that were originally recommended. However, we are already committed to 127 sites, which have had buy-in from all marine industry stakeholders following the regional project consultation, and were recommended where they had the least socio-economic impact.

The Science Advisory Panel, appointed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, stated that all 127 marine conservation zones need to be designated if the UK is to follow its own guidance on delivering an ecological network. Without those 127 zones, the seas will not have the necessary chance of recovery. How will the Minister achieve such a network if he does not designate all 127 sites?

In the few minutes left to me before I ask the Minister to respond, I shall talk about overfishing, the one area of the debate that has been discussed in Parliament in some detail. There have been debates about overfishing and fish discards, so I will keep my comments fairly brief. Rio agreed to maintain fish stocks at levels that would at least produce the maximum sustainable yield and eliminate destructive fishing practices. I was pleased to see that progress was made on that at the recent EU fisheries council, with agreement to a ban on discards and to legally binding limits on fishing levels. The timetable for phased implementation of that agreement is too lengthy and the decisions were more politically than science-led, but some good progress was made. I hope that we can take that forward.

I would like to raise with the Minister his Government’s failure to protect marine protected areas by sanctioning destructive fishing practices, such as scallop dredging, in areas recommended for designation as marine conservation zones and special areas of conservation.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on a most powerful speech. In the part of the world I represent, scallop dredging is a significant problem. At one time in North Ayrshire there were huge numbers of fishing fleets, but we now have none. Does she agree that we need to consider that, but that we also need to look at other species such as dolphins and whales? Does she also agree that it is concerning that the Scottish Government are not including such species in their network of marine conservation areas?

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I was not aware of what was going on with the Scottish Government in that regard. It sounds like very disappointing news. Any of us who have seen films such as “The End of the Line,” which talks about the huge impact overfishing is having on species—particularly dolphins, tuna and some of the bigger fish that she mentioned—would regard that as very disappointing. Has the Minister’s Department assessed whether scallop dredging and trawling is in breach of the EU habitats directive, which states that site integrity, not features, must be conserved?

My final point is that commitments were made at Rio to eliminate illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. Some 15% of all sea catch is from illegal fisheries. I know that the EU is starting to play its part by demanding strict traceability on all fish sold in Europe, but, globally, more effort is needed to address suspicious consignments landing at ports. The Environmental Justice Foundation estimates that Sierra Leone, where coastal communities are dependent on fishing for their food and livelihoods and where fishing represents around 10% of GDP, is losing almost $29 million a year to pirate fishing operators.

There is also concern that illegal fishing off the coast of west African countries such as Senegal and Mauritania is contributing to growing levels of piracy in those countries, and that they could end up like Somalia, with armed pirates attacking ships. As the President of Puntland said at last year’s conference in London on piracy:

“the violation of Somali waters by foreign trawlers triggered a reaction of armed resistance by Somali fisherman, whose livelihoods were disrupted by the illegal fishing fleets. Over time, payment of ransom by the foreign trawlers to the poor fishermen of Somalia encouraged the escalation of pirate attacks to current levels”.

That obviously does not excuse piracy, but it goes some way towards explaining why it has increased to such dramatic levels.

Turning to my final questions to the Minister, what assessment have the Government made of the impact of illegal fishing on increased levels of piracy around the shores of Africa? What steps are the Government taking to help build the capacity of local communities in affected countries to end illegal unreported and unregulated fishing? What steps are they taking to collaborate internationally to develop national, regional and global monitoring, control surveillance, compliance and enforcement systems?

Good morning, Mr Gray. I start by congratulating, as others have, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) on obtaining the debate. I apologise for my presence and, more importantly, the absence of the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who the hon. Lady had presumably expected to reply to the debate. Unfortunately, he cannot be here this morning. I assure her that most of what I have to say addresses the points she quite properly raised. If I miss or am unable to respond to any points, I will ask my hon. Friend to write to her with more information.

The Government recognise, as the hon. Lady does, that marine ecosystems are central to human well-being as a source of several important marine ecosystem services. The sustainable management of oceans and seas is essential to achieve the goals of a blue economy in terms of sustainable economic growth, poverty eradication and job creation. As she has rightly pointed out, oceans are globally, regionally and nationally important.

That is why, as she has described, the Government are acting on all fronts, pressing for action on a global scale in Europe and nationally. The Government have been quick to realise that there is an urgent need for a governance structure for areas beyond national jurisdiction to ensure the conservation and sustainable use of those vast areas. In June 2011, in the White Paper on the natural environment, the Government committed themselves to working towards delivering a new global mechanism to regulate the conservation of marine biodiversity in the high seas. As she says, even though marine issues were not the main focus of Rio+20, there was tangible progress on them, which is good news.

Against a background of delay and intransigence that has dogged previous negotiations on the issue—and as the hon. Lady said, still persists in some quarters—agreement was secured that a decision on the matter should be taken by the UN General Assembly in 2014. I can assure her that we will continue to work to ensure that such an agreement provides a coherent structure for the conservation and sustainable use of those areas beyond national jurisdiction, including a globally accepted mechanism for the designation of high seas marine protected areas and the effective use of environmental impact assessments in so doing.

In the absence of such a global agreement, the UK continues to work through regional sea conventions such as OSPAR, which is the convention for the protection of the marine environment of the north-east Atlantic, and the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which is known as CCAMLR, to protect those high seas. Following the establishment in 2009 of the world’s first high seas MPA under CCAMLR at the ministerial conference to OSPAR in 2010, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, together with fellow Ministers from OSPAR contracting parties, agreed to establish six marine protected areas in the high seas of the north-east Atlantic. A further site was added at the OSPAR Commission meeting in June this year. I assure the hon. Lady that the UK will continue to work within OSPAR and other regional conventions to consider other designations on the high seas.

There was also consensus at Rio on understanding and dealing with the effects of climate change and, consistent with the Government’s position and that of the hon. Lady, a more sustainable future for fisheries. We agreed on the need for better implementation of the UN fish stocks agreement and the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s code of conduct from countries to ensure that they ratify and implement the provisions quickly to demonstrate their international commitment to the protection of fisheries resources.

We welcomed recognition of the efforts made by regional fisheries management organisations to improve the management of resources for which they are responsible. As the hon. Lady said, illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing—IUU—is a blight on our seas. The regional management organisations have a key role to play in combating IUU fishing and in ensuring the sustainability of fishing stocks, and we will continue to work within those of which we are members to step up those efforts.

At this year’s International Whaling Commission meeting in Panama last week, we were successful in demonstrating the UK’s commitment to the IWC’s conservation work and our fundamental support for the moratorium on commercial whaling. The meeting delivered positive results for the conservation and welfare of whales. However, we must match our efforts on the global and regional stage with our own implementation.

It is surprising to some that the UK has established the world’s largest marine protected areas, including the world’s largest no-take zone—I speak of the vast biologically rich marine resources of our overseas territories—and in February an area of more than 1 million sq km around South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands in the Southern ocean was designated a sustainable-use marine protected area, establishing one of the largest areas of sustainable managed ocean in the world. That built on the equally impressive no-take marine protected area around the British Indian Ocean Territory of 640,000 sq km, designated in 2010. As the hon. Lady knows, it includes the protection of some pristine coral reefs, to which she referred. Further work is under way elsewhere.

The recently published White Paper on overseas territories illustrates the Government’s commitment to enhance our work in partnership with overseas territories so that we understand, value and preserve their rich natural heritage appropriately, and ensure that their resources are managed sustainably, building on measures already in place. However, as the hon. Lady and the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) said, the UK itself has a rich, diverse and economically important marine area.

“Charting Progress 2” was published by the Department in 2011, and shows the progress that the UK has made in achieving the Government’s vision of clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas, but our seas will remain sustainable, productive and healthy in the long term only if the right balance can be struck between conservation and economic activity. That will work only if marine conservation sits alongside other policies, such as marine planning and fisheries. That is at the heart of our recent consultation on targets for achieving good environmental status in our seas under the marine strategy framework directive. That consultation has now closed. We aim to publish our response in the autumn, finalising proposals for targets that are ambitious, but recognise the need to achieve sustainable use of our seas.

We remain committed to establishing a network of marine protected areas, but it is important that the right areas are designated and managed, as opposed to simply designating a large number of sites.

Let me say what I was about to say because it relates directly to the right hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in response to the right hon. Gentleman that we already have a network of 84 marine protected areas in English seas out to 12 nautical miles from the coast. We plan to complete the set designated under the EU habitats directive this year. In addition, we are working to designate more sites under the EU birds directive, and marine conservation zones provided for in the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, for which he was responsible.

The Minister is quite right to say that such areas need to be properly designated, but two years of painstaking work went into identifying the potential 127 sites, involving all stakeholders: commercial fisheries, recreation fisheries, environmental groups and others. The fear among most of those groups now is that the Department is selling out to small but very powerful commercial fishing industries by dragging its feet in setting up those areas. We would be grateful for his reassurance that that is not the case.

I am very happy to give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. The information I have is that the problem is not, as he implies, special interest groups, but simply that there is insufficient evidence for some of those zones. That is not to say that they will be ruled out, and the delay is because of trying to find sufficient evidence to justify their inclusion. I hope to reassure the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bristol East a little more.

More than 22% of English waters are protected by European marine sites, and we have set a target that at least 25% of these waters will be covered by well-managed marine protection areas by the end of 2016. By then, we expect the coverage of all UK waters to be consistent with the 10% target for marine areas agreed at the convention on biological diversity in 2010. The first tranche should be designated in summer 2013, after we have held our public consultation on recommended sites and examined all the evidence before us. We fully expect further tranches of sites to follow in future.

That MPA network is central to achieving good environmental status by 2020 under the marine strategy framework directive, and as implementation of management measures will take time, and biological recovery from pressures can be slow, early action, when possible, is a pragmatic approach. However, marine protection areas are only one tool we are using to deliver clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas.

If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I want to deal with the fishing issue, which the hon. Member for Bristol East addressed. I believe, as did the right hon. Member for Exeter when he had responsibility for the matter, that only a very urgent change in European fisheries policy can ensure that our seas deliver a sustainable future, for both conservation of biodiversity and a viable fishing fleet.

The UK has been leading the way in trialling schemes to improve the selectivity of how we fish, and to tackle the waste of discards by managing fisheries by what is caught, and not what is landed. We have taken that experience into the current reform of the common fisheries policy. Hon. Members will know that the recent meeting of the Agriculture and Fisheries Council successfully made the case for measures progressively to eliminate discards. Not all member states shared our ambition, but a commitment to implement a landing obligation with a provisional timetable is a major step in the right direction.

At that same meeting, we also secured a responsible approach to setting fishing levels. Overfishing has been a central failing of the current CFP, and the UK was adamant that the text should include a clear legal commitment and deadlines to achieve a maximum sustainable yield in line with our international commitments.

No, I am sorry. I want quickly to finish by answering the point that the hon. Member for Bristol East made about scallops. The use of bottom trawls or other types of gear and activity must be managed appropriately in European marine sites to ensure site compliance with, as the hon. Lady rightly said, the habitats directive. Appropriate measures must be considered by regulators and relevant authorities for their specific areas for activities that may have a significant impact. Banning an activity or type of gear, such as bottoms trawls, as the hon. Lady suggested, can be one example of management action for some scenarios. Orders prohibiting bottom trawling are already in place in areas such as Lyme bay, and we are committed to ensuring that appropriate regulation is put into practice where it is important.

The hon. Lady referred to illegal fishing off Africa and the link with potential piracy, and I confess that that has never been raised with me or my officials. If she will allow me to do so, I will write to her.

I have tried to answer most of the hon. Lady’s questions. I know that she is extremely diligent on such issues, and I respect that.

Sitting suspended.