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Blue Belt Programme: Marine Protected Areas

Volume 633: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2017

We now come to an important debate on the Blue Belt programme. I should advise the Chamber that we expect a Division imminently, in which case I shall have to suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Blue Belt programme for marine protection.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. You and I share a birthday, 7 November, although we were not born in the same year. Thank you for undertaking to chair this debate.

I am told that Sir David Attenborough’s one great regret in life is that he has not done enough to protect the world’s environment. Well, he does not need me or anyone else in this House to reassure him that he has probably done more than any other human being to protect the world’s environment, and I cannot think of a better way of marking that contribution than the very welcome decision to name the Natural Environment Research Council’s new polar research ship, to be launched next year, not Boaty McBoatface, as some people had predicted, but the RRS Sir David Attenborough. That is a fitting tribute to a very great man.

The BBC’s “Blue Planet II” and Sir David’s stark warnings about the threats posed to the world’s oceans from over-fishing, plastics and, of course, climate change will stand for a very long time as a beacon of all that is wrong in our oceans, but it is also a clarion call for “action this day”, as Churchill would have put it. It is a call to all of us in this House to do what we can to lead the world in a variety of environmental initiatives, including taking steps to protect the waters around Great Britain, Northern Ireland and our 14 overseas territories.

However, before dealing with that, it is worth noting that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently reaffirmed our commitment to tackling climate change and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committed us to taking action on plastics in the oceans. Both those initiatives are very much to be welcomed. The Wildlife Trusts, among others, have called for the Government to develop a national marine strategy to safeguard the cleanliness and biodiversity of our own territorial waters after we leave the EU.

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman is saying. I congratulate him on securing this debate and remind him that we recently had a long debate on marine conservation. I hope that he will join the all-party group that a number of us are setting up—it is a cross-party group—on marine conservation.

I will be glad to do so. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for bringing the group to my notice, although I do have one caveat, which I will come to later.

The important point about Brexit is that it must not mean a lessening of any of the environmental standards in our oceans. Her Majesty’s Government must commit to ensuring that they are all higher than would have been the case had we remained a member of the EU.

A full commitment to marine protected areas and the Government’s Blue Belt programme is of course central to all that. The Conservative party manifesto for this year’s general election committed us to working with the overseas territories to create a network of MPAs covering more than 2 million square miles of the waters for which the UK is ultimately responsible. That is a fantastic opportunity for us to do what is right in our own waters, but also to lead the world by example across the whole spectrum of ocean conservation.

I salute the great many people who have called for the Blue Belt programme and are active in seeking its implementation, especially my right hon. Friend the Minister here today, my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation—together with his father and brother, if I may say so—and, in particular, my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), whom I am very glad to see here today, and my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith). They have worked incredibly hard in advocating the Blue Belt programme. As a result of it, we have already seen the UK designate new MPAs around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Helena and Pitcairn. We are further committed to designating MPAs around Ascension and Tristan da Cunha by 2020.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, I take a particular interest in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which sit on the cusp of the Southern ocean and Antarctica. There, the UK has a real responsibility. After all, it was largely our whalers and sealers who wrought so much of the appalling environmental damage there in the 18th and 19th centuries. They left behind something of an environmental catastrophe, particularly on South Georgia. We also have a huge responsibility because South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is an area of such outstanding scientific importance, both for the study of marine ecosystems and for monitoring the effects of climate change, sitting as it does on the cusp of two great oceans.

I particularly look forward, therefore, to further news on the exciting project to be called, I think, Discovery 100, which would result in a huge investment of private funds in the further preservation of the heritage of South Georgia, as well as its biodiversity following the enormously successful rat eradication programme over the past few years. I hope that Discovery 100 might also make provision for international scientific research facilities on the island. 

The establishment of an MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in 2012 and its strengthening in 2013 were important steps towards correcting the damage previously done and preventing anything similar from happening in the future. The Blue Belt programme is now driving forward efforts to establish MPAs around Antarctica, although quite rightly that has to be done through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources. The CCAMLR agreement is incredibly important from a conservation standpoint and is a critical pillar of the Antarctic treaty system, so we must do nothing that risks undermining it. Because the Antarctic treaty suspends all territorial claims to Antarctica, including our own claim to the British Antarctic Territory, it is only through international consensus that MPAs can be established around Antarctica, including the British Antarctic Territory.

In 2009, the UK helped secure the consensus for the first Antarctic MPA, covering an area south of the South Orkney Islands. Last year, CCAMLR agreed an MPA for the Ross Sea region, and I am delighted that, despite a few setbacks this year, the Government remain committed to working towards securing international agreement on designating additional MPAs in East Antarctica, the Weddell sea and the Western Antarctic peninsula.

As a Member who represents a coastal constituency, I well understand the importance of marine conservation, and I am very happy to support the Blue Belt programme. Is my hon. Friend aware of the Sky News Ocean Rescue campaign, which is today highlighting Antarctica and the challenges that it faces as a consequence of overuse of plastics and other pollution around the world?

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing that to my notice. In his short time in the House so far, he has been assiduous in championing the interests of the oceans off his own constituency and elsewhere around the world. I am most grateful to him for that. If I may, I will come back to the Sky television programme in a moment.

There is more to be done. For example, there are—I think that my hon. Friend referred to this briefly—current debates about whether the MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is sufficient and whether the protections already in place could or should be further enhanced. I think that the Sky TV programme is about that. A review of the MPA is under way at the moment, with recommendations due to be published next year.

An organisation known as the Great British Oceans coalition, which consists of six major environmental conservation organisations, has said that it wants to see protection of the area around the South Sandwich Islands in particular enhanced to the fullest degree. Doing that, it argues, would help the UK to reaffirm our ambition of becoming a global leader of efforts to protect the world’s oceans. It would also send a strong message to other CCAMLR members that the UK is committed to driving forward international efforts to establish MPAs around Antarctica in particular. Those are of course extremely laudable aims that broadly reflect the intent of the Blue Belt programme, and it is vital that we should not fail to capitalise on the momentum generated by “Blue Planet II”, so I am broadly supportive of the aims and efforts of the Great British Oceans coalition. We all want the UK to be a global leader in marine protection, but there is a debate to be had about how best to achieve that, particularly without disturbing the delicate CCAMLR discussions on MPAs around Antarctica.

Unlike with other overseas territories, for the past 35 years or so the UK has allowed South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands to be covered by CCAMLR rules on fisheries management. The reason for that is simple. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands lie within the Southern ocean convergence and share the same wildlife as Antarctica. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are also, however, counterclaimed by Argentina—a matter that we are well aware of in this House. By allowing the islands to fall under CCAMLR, the UK is able to manage those waters effectively within the international consensus of CCAMLR. Working through CCAMLR therefore underpins British sovereignty of the waters, which seems to me to be extremely important. It also helps to foster greater international co-operation around Antarctica and the Southern ocean, and, as I mentioned a moment ago, that co-operation promotes conservation efforts across the entire white continent and its surrounding waters.

After all, since 2012 the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands MPA has managed the local fishery and protected globally significant wildlife very adequately indeed. There is just one small commercial fishery licensed by the UK, which amounts to no more than two vessels fishing for one month a year and taking around 60 to 80 tonnes of fish in the waters. Those two boats also supply scientific data to CCAMLR, which is no easy task. Were it not for the fact that we allow those two vessels to fish for profit in the highly regulated South Georgia fishery, it would be too expensive for them to go there and we would therefore lose the scientific data we currently provide to CCAMLR. In other words, were this fishery to be closed, as some are calling for and the coalition seems to be calling for, the UK would no longer be able to control fishing in the area as effectively.

It is clear that the hon. Gentleman feels passionately about this issue, but the campaign that he refers to for the South Sandwich Islands has made it clear that a scientifically credible stock assessment is not incompatible with a fully protected reserve. Does he agree, therefore, that there is an opportunity to retain a small scientifically robust stock assessment alongside the full protection that the coalition is calling for?

That is a matter that needs to be discussed, and it will be interesting to hear how the Minister responds to that point later in the debate. Of course it would be possible for the two fishery vessels to continue to do their scientific research there at the same time as there being full protection, but we have already got full protection of those waters under the long-standing MPA that is already there. I am not certain that what is proposed by the coalition would necessarily add anything to that. However, it might well undermine our ability to provide that scientific data and it might invite other CCAMLR members to say that it is not being done properly and therefore they—the other CCAMLR members—have some kind of right to do that scientific fishing research in the area. I therefore think there are downsides, as well as upsides, to what the coalition proposes. It is a delicate political decision, which the Minister might refer to in his response.

There could, therefore, be a perversity in what the coalition demand—namely, that more fish will be caught in the area as a result, rather than less. That is something that we have to be extremely careful about. There may be innovative solutions to the problem, particularly surrounding enforcement of the MPA, perhaps using the latest satellite technology, and further discussion may well be warranted about how the UK can best protect the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and revitalise international efforts to increase protection around the world.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important and timely debate. As I understand, one of the Foreign Office’s concerns about the new larger reserve around the South Sandwich Islands is that it might result in a displaced krill fishery, but no krill have actually been caught around the South Sandwich Islands commercially for 25 years. I am concerned that those concerns have not been properly thought through, and that the opportunity to create a 500,000 sq km exclusion zone in this pristine water, with the conditions that my hon. Friend refers to, will be missed.

My right hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about these matters, makes two points. One is that there will be some interference with the krill fishing, which has not actually occurred for many years. That is not one of our concerns: there is no such fishing, therefore it is not something we would necessarily be concerned about. His second point is that we might somehow be sacrificing the opportunity for this fantastic protected area. That protected area already exists under the MPA. We already have that protection for the waters around the South Sandwich Islands, and therefore I am not certain that what is being proposed would necessarily add very much to it.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Foreign Office. I pay particular tribute to the department in the Foreign Office that runs these matters, in particular the outstandingly good Jane Rumble, who has done this work for many years and knows more about Antarctica than most of us know about anything else. I certainly do not want to be thought to be blocking efforts to enhance marine protection around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Antarctica or anywhere else in the world, but we do need to be aware of the law of unintended consequences. I think that what my right hon. Friend proposes may suffer from exactly that law—in other words, protection for the South Sandwich Islands may be the worse if what he proposes is allowed to occur.

The public reaction to “Blue Planet II” offers us one of those rare opportunities to make a real difference in the world, and that must now be seized. We must remind audiences at home and in the world of our utmost commitment to the Blue Belt programme. The Government must listen carefully to the latest proposals for the South Sandwich Islands, but they must never forget that those also form part of a bigger picture of environmental protection and marine conservation in Antarctica and the Southern ocean. The Blue Belt programme of marine protected areas around the 14 British overseas territories is world-leading. I hope that in his response the Minister will reassert our commitment to it and our determination to lead the world in the ocean protection so passionately demanded, most notably by Sir David Attenborough, and now by a fast-growing percentage of the British electorate as well.

If we have the consent of the Member in charge, we are in receipt of an extraordinarily generous offer from Her Majesty’s Government. The Minister has agreed to confine his remarks to eight minutes, which means that we have five minutes of time if anyone else wants to make a contribution. If no one wishes to take your offer, Minister, the floor is yours.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) on securing this highly topical debate. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions, he brings a wealth of experience on the Arctic and Antarctic, and a close interest in the health of their marine environments, as do all the other right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who has taken an acute interest in this issue.

I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to highlight once again the Government’s Blue Belt initiative. This is one of the most ambitious programmes of marine protection ever undertaken. Of the approximately 6.8 million sq km of ocean surrounding the UK and our 14 overseas territories, we have committed to developing measures to ensure the protection of 4 million sq km by 2020. I personally announced that commitment at the Our Ocean summit in Washington in September last year, and am delighted to confirm that the delivery of the commitment is on track.

Over the past few weeks much of the country, and audiences across the world, have been engrossed in the BBC’s brilliant “Blue Planet II”. Sir David Attenborough and his team have expertly shone a light on our incredible oceans and how diverse, important to the health of our planet and vulnerable they are.

If I may pray on some of the generous time that the Minister has offered, I just ask him to consider, as part of the very exciting Blue Belt policy, that certain problems exist not only for marine ecosystems and the species we want to see recover, but for the people who live on the islands and on whose support we depend. In particular, in Ascension Island there are very real difficulties with the prosperity of that community as a result of the failures to make the runway safe for use. Can my right hon. Friend the Minister assure us that investment is being made in Ascension Island? That will ensure that the people of that island can really support the marine protected area because they have a viable existence on the island.

Air access to Ascension Island resumed on 18 November, and a monthly air service has begun to and from neighbouring St Helena. Most workers on Ascension are from St Helena; as a Minister for the Department for International Development, I was largely responsible for building the airport there, which I am pleased to say now works. Employers on Ascension confirm that the monthly air service meets their current needs.

To return to “Blue Planet”—I risk being pressed for time if I do not get through what I need to tell the House—the series highlighted the many pressures that we are putting on our oceans, including the scourge of plastic waste, the unpredictable effects of global warming and atmospheric pollution and the danger of overfishing. Many of those challenges—perhaps most of them—must be addressed at the global level, and the UK will play a full and active leadership role in that work. Yet there is also good evidence that establishing well designed, effectively managed and properly enforced marine protection measures can help parts of the ocean withstand some of those pressures.

Our Blue Belt initiative is committed to doing just that. We have already declared large-scale marine protected areas in five of our overseas territories—St Helena, Pitcairn, the British Indian Ocean Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Territory, representing a total of 2.9 million sq km, or more than 40% of British waters. Of this, 1.5 million sq km, or more than 20% of our waters, are now designated as highly protected and closed to all commercial fishing.

At this point I feel obliged, as I always do when “Blue Planet” is mentioned, to say that the BBC natural history unit is based in Bristol and does tremendous work. The Minister touched on the issue of plastic pollution. Is he aware of the recent study by the University of Hull and the British Antarctic Survey, which found that plastic pollution in the Antarctic was five times as bad as predicted? To deal with the problem, it is not enough to create marine protected areas; we must do much more to tackle the problem of microplastics at source.

I fully accept what the hon. Lady says. We are focusing primarily on fishing in this debate, but the issue of plastics is of growing significance, and I hope that tackling it can be a cross-party endeavour. It is not a party political issue; we all want the same objectives, and the more that we work together across the party divide with one loud voice for the United Kingdom, the better we can make improvements for the world.

To return to what I was saying, we are not stopping with the efforts that I just described. Two further overseas territories, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension, have committed to declaring marine protection measures across their waters by 2020. Working with our two main Blue Belt delivery partners, the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation, we have been supporting those territories to ensure that each marine protection regime is well designed, managed, monitored and enforced. Each territory has its own unique environment and particular needs, so there is certainly no one-size-fits-all solution. Each territory must feel a sense of involvement and ownership if we want the Blue Belt to be a lasting legacy.

The Blue Belt is already delivering results: for example, real-time analysis of satellite data has helped build intelligence on illegal fishing and inform long-term enforcement solutions. Overseas territory Governments have received advice and support to strengthen fisheries legislation and licensing and enforcement regimes. Targeted scientific cruises have been undertaken or are planned to assess biodiversity and analyse fish stocks. Also, links between the territories and appropriate regional fisheries management organisations have been strengthened.

The Minister has another five minutes so can I ask him, as he is an influential member of Government, to ensure that we have the right resources and investment in the research that is desperately needed to tackle the problems that he just mentioned?

The hon. Gentleman has hit on an important point. It is not just about being in these areas; it is about what we do while we are there. The scientific effort that we make, in which we are a world leader, is important to preserve; I had a meeting about it this very morning.

Of course, as with any Government initiative, we are not immune to critics. While watching “Blue Planet”, many Members of this House will have received direct tweets and messages encouraging them to sign up to the Blue Belt charter, or “back the Blue Belt”. I am delighted that in this debate, we have demonstrated the broad cross-party consensus on the importance of protecting our marine environment.

Although the Blue Belt Charter mainly includes already-announced Government commitments, it also focuses on the designation of large-scale no fishing areas. That is not always the most appropriate or most effective approach. We are also not willing to sacrifice the livelihoods and wellbeing of those in our overseas territories who depend on a healthy fishery, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned a moment ago.

The charter includes a call for the South Sandwich Islands in the far south Atlantic to be designated a complete no-take marine reserve. Those waters are already part of a marine protected area declared in 2012, which includes some of the strictest fisheries management rules in the world. The UK is proud of its effective management of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands; since the bleak outlook of the 1970s and 1980s, caused by significant over-fishing, the territory is now internationally recognised as having one of the best-managed fisheries in the world.

It might seem, as was said earlier, counter-intuitive to argue against a total ban on fishing when our objective is to protect the oceans. However, sometimes a small footprint of extremely well managed and controlled fishing can help safeguard waters against illegal incursions and provide valuable scientific information about the health of the wider ocean. Simply prohibiting fishing in one area, only to see vessels concentrate somewhere else, is not always the most appropriate conservation approach. Let me reassure the House that we are by no means complacent on this issue. We do not wish to see a return to illegal fishing in our waters.

Given the campaign for a complete closure of the South Sandwich Islands fishery, we are urgently considering it, including through consideration of the scientific advice prepared for the current five-year review of the existing MPA. We are also assessing what implications such action would have for the UK’s leadership role within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, within whose remit the waters of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands lie.

The information that we have on krill stocks is that the quota given is 130% above the scientifically advised level. Surely there is no real case to make for the displacement of fisheries.

That is exactly the kind of expert advice that we are assessing at the moment. We want to ensure that any policy decision is founded on scientific advice of the highest possible quality and a sensible understanding of possible unforeseen consequences in the practical world, so that we can bring all the threads together to take the most responsible decision. As I said earlier, there are no party politics involved. We just want to do what is good for the world, the waters and the islanders, and what is good for conservation and the preservation of our planet.

I am proud that this Government have been in the vanguard of marine protection. We recognise our essential role as custodians of one of the largest marine areas on the planet, and we understand the importance of protecting our oceans, as well as the magnitude of the challenge. Our commitment to delivering on the promises that I made in Washington last year is absolutely steadfast and enduring. I am grateful for the support of those who have engaged in this debate, and I hope that we can all work together for a better planet in the years and decades ahead.

Question put and agreed to.