Skip to main content

Blue Belt Programme: South Sandwich Islands

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 12 December 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Government’s blue belt programme and the South Sandwich islands.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. Oceans cover about 71% of the earth’s surface, and around 90% of the earth’s biosphere. They contain about a quarter of a million different known species—and likely vastly more, given that so little of our oceans has been properly explored or understood. Today, I will speak about the tragedy of what is happening to our oceans and about what we need to do to protect them.

There was a time when our oceans were absolutely brimming with life. In 1497, the explorer John Cabot complained that his ship’s progress had been hampered by the sheer volume of cod off the coast of Newfoundland. He wrote a message to his sponsor, King Henry VII, in which he said that his men

“took so many fish that this kingdom will no longer have need of Iceland, from which country there is an immense trade in the fish”.

As we now know, industrial fishing quickly put an end to that. In 1968, the registered catch was 800,000 tonnes; by 1994, the catch was just 1,700 tonnes. In Victorian England, one could have seen large pods of orcas and blue whales off the coast of Cornwall. Professor Callum Roberts has reminded us that in 1836, a shoal of sardines extended, in a single compact body, from Fowey to Land’s End—a distance of around 100 miles. He notes that today, people pay serious money to travel thousands of miles to witness such scenes.

Today, we face an unprecedented loss of species in our oceans, comparable to the mass extinctions of past millennia. A year ago, the Zoological Society of London and the World Wide Fund for Nature issued a report stating that there is only half the amount of wildlife in the sea today as there was in 1970, just a few years before I was born. Between 70% and 80% of the world’s marine fish stocks have either been fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or are recovering from depletion. Of the 17 largest fisheries in the world, 15 are now so heavily depleted that future catches cannot be guaranteed.

A scientific paper published in Nature reports that we have lost 90% of the world’s big predatory fish, such as tunas and sharks. Only 5% of coral reefs are considered pristine. Despite serving as breeding grounds for 85% of commercial fish, a third of the world’s mangroves have been destroyed since 1990. That annihilation is happening across the world, and is not only an unforgivable biodiversity tragedy, but a human tragedy.

About 200 million people depend directly on the fishing industry for their livelihoods. For more than 1 billion people, fish is the primary source of protein. If the fishing industry collapses, the effects will be disastrous, especially for the world’s poorest people. One has only to look at what happened in Somalia a couple of decades ago: years of overfishing—mostly by vast foreign fleets—decimated the coastal economy when fish stocks ran out. Legal fishing gave way to piracy, and millions were plunged into poverty, with criminality taking over.

There are numerous causes of this loss and numerous things that we need to do to put things right, but the biggest—and the focus of the debate—is simply protection. Marine protected areas represent a broad spectrum, with everything from absolute no-take zones to areas open only to sustainable fishing. We know that they work because we can literally measure the results of protection.

When commercial fishing in the Atlantic ocean and North sea had to be stopped during world war two, there was an immediate spike in fish populations. In New Zealand’s Leigh marine reserve, common predatory fish are now six times more abundant in the reserve than outside, while in its Tāwharanui marine reserve, there are 60% more species in the reserve than out. Spain has suffered massively from overfishing, but catches close to the Tabarca marine reserve were 85% higher than elsewhere after just six years of protection. The list goes on, all around the world.

There is a level of agreement about the scale of the problem, but the response—an international commitment to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020—is far below what is needed. To make matters much worse, we are nowhere near achieving that. The British Government get it: we have committed to pushing for the protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030, and despite being a relatively small nation we are in a good position to take the lead. We are, after all, custodians of the fifth largest marine estate in the world, thanks to our extensive overseas territories, which contain, incidentally, over 94% of the UK’s unique biodiversity. They are scattered across the world and home to countless rare and threatened species.

In the context of our overseas territories, Blue Belt is an incredibly ambitious policy. Does my hon. Friend agree that we will be judged on its success only in terms of how we support different marine protections around different archipelagos and islands? Ascension Island is a key one: people are waiting to see whether the Government are willing to pledge the means to ensure that the marine protection area there is a success, so that we can have confidence in what we are doing globally.

I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his intervention, and I agree with him 100%. I put on the record my thanks to him and my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin), who led the campaign in Parliament and can take a lot of credit for the Government’s current position.

May I ask my hon. Friend to hold off for a second? I know what he is going to ask me.

The overseas territories are enormously important breeding grounds for endangered turtles, a third of the world’s albatrosses, a quarter of the world’s penguins, and the world’s largest coral atoll. In what remains to this day, I think, the biggest conservation commitment ever made by any Government ever, our Government pledged to protect over 4 million square kilometres across those overseas territories by 2020. Altogether, that is an area bigger than India. That commitment makes us world leaders in ocean protection, and it is hard to think of a better illustration of global Britain.

I remind the House that, as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, I visited South Georgia at the expense of the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands last year.

Does my hon. Friend welcome the Government’s announcement this morning that, partly as a result of his pressure, they are to extend the no-take boundaries around South Georgia from 12 to 31 miles; that they will extend the marine protected area around the whole of the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands maritime zone, meaning that 173,000 square kilometres will now be entirely protected from commercial fishing; and that they intend to close the South Sandwich Islands trench region—the most important bit—to all commercial fisheries? I hope he welcomes that announcement.

Of course, I hugely welcome that announcement. I will come to that in a few moments, but my speech will first canter through some of the overseas territories and some of the work that we are doing and need to do. The move that my hon. Friend referred to puts to rest a lot of the arguments against full protection, but I will come to that, and we will no doubt have an argument in due course.

I have described a great commitment of which we can be proud, but alone it is not enough. We need to make good on it, properly, and we need go further. Before I go into detail on the Blue Belt, I hope that the Minister will confirm that funding for the Blue Belt will be assured beyond 2020. It stands at £4.8 million per year and given what we get for that, it is spectacularly good value for money.

I want to look more broadly at the actual Blue Belt commitments. In some areas where we have made promises, we have delivered spectacularly. The Pitcairn islands in the Pacific ocean, for example, are surrounded by the most pristine marine environment anywhere on earth. It is just magnificent that the Government have permanently closed those waters, which cover around 840,000 square kilometres, to commercial fishing. It is one of the largest protected areas in the world.

Tristan da Cunha, a tiny island in the south Atlantic, has waters with vast populations of seals, southern right whales and blue sharks, as well as being home to great numbers of seabirds and rockhopper penguins. The Government have committed to protecting the full 750,000 sq km of Tristan’s waters by 2020. I hope that the Minister will confirm that we will make good on that commitment and that we will help the tiny local population by protecting the area from illegal fishing.

In 2016, the Government committed to a marine protected area of 450,000 sq km around St Helena in the south Atlantic ocean. It is an area bigger than Germany and has more than 40 endemic species, including whale sharks, turtles and humpback whales. The aspiration is to develop a sustainable one-by-one—one hook to catch one fish at a time—tuna fishery in its own marine protected area. At this stage, however, St Helena has yet to ban industrial long-lining from its waters. The Government clearly need to work with the local population to put that right, as a matter of urgency.

Ascension Island, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) mentioned, has 450,000 sq km of ocean and the second-largest green turtle breeding population in the Atlantic. It is a hotspot for sharks, tuna and swordfish. The Government are committed to protecting at least 50% of the area by 2019, but nothing stops them from going further and protecting the whole area. I understand that the island’s Council is itself minded to back 100% protection, but they are looking for assurances from the Government that they will not then be saddled with the costs of satellite monitoring for effective enforcement. They calculate, incidentally, that it would be cheaper to protect the whole area, rather than half, so that should not be a barrier. I hope that the Minister will address that point.

Viewers of the extraordinary “Blue Planet II” series will know that the greatest gift that the Government can give the oceans lies further south in, as my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (James Gray) has just referenced, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. That is why the title of this debate names the area specifically. Those tiny, uninhabited islands are a near-pristine global biodiversity hotspot. A full quarter of the global population of penguins live here, alongside recovering populations of whales and seals, and unique marine habitats.

The local Government designated the whole 1 million sq km around the islands as an MPA in 2012. However, although the fisheries around South Georgia are without doubt managed to a high standard, until this morning only 2% of the total waters were fully protected. I understand from the news today that that area has been increased from 2% to 23%, which is fantastic news, but the remaining 77% is still technically open to fishing, and that could easily change. There is a huge groundswell of opinion among scientists, non-governmental organisations and colleagues in this House behind the campaign fully to protect the waters around the South Sandwich Islands in particular, which is about 500,000 sq km, roughly half of the whole MPA.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. The designation of those waters is an important step, but does he agree that we should not confuse designation with protection, and that we should encourage the Government to be bolder in protecting more of our fragile ocean environment, especially where the UK has involvement?

I very much take the hon. Gentleman’s point; in fact, he takes the words out of my mouth.

The remaining half of the waters—not the 500,000 sq km that need full protection—would still be open to well-managed fisheries. Colleagues will have seen the case for protection powerfully made by a broad coalition in an open letter to the Foreign Secretary. It was published, I think, in the Telegraph last week, and went wild on social media. That is a genuine win-win proposal. The South Sandwich Islands have not been fished commercially in 25 years, so no fishing at all would be displaced. Upgrading the existing MPA to give full protection can be achieved within existing budgets and existing legislation. Politically, it would demonstrate the UK’s willingness to lead by example.

My hon. Friend is most generous in giving way. The point he makes is that there has been no commercial fishing in this area for 25 years. However, there is no prospect that there will be in the next 25 years, so what he is proposing and campaigning for is tokenistic in the extreme. Will he not simply take this opportunity to welcome the fact that the Government have now protected the krill fisheries for an extra two months, banned HFO—heavy fuel oil—vessels from the area and taken a variety of other environmental steps to protect it in the way that he wants? Merely calling for more and more protection in a tokenistic and campaigning way achieves nothing but the alienation of local people.

To suggest that we should not protect an area because it has not yet been destroyed is madness; the same argument could equally have been used against pretty much any one of the world’s nature reserves, including the national parks that are a source of pride in this country. The fact that the area has not been exploited and that an industry has not yet been able to develop there is precisely why it needs protection. Were a fishing industry to emerge and develop in that area, the prospect of removing it would become inconceivable—vastly expensive, hugely disruptive and politically difficult —and so not happen. Because the area has not been fished and is pretty much pristine, it requires the protection for which the campaigners are rightly asking.

Politically, as I said, such a move would demonstrate the UK’s willingness to lead by example, but I would go further than that. If we are not willing to protect that pristine, unfished, global biodiversity gem, how could anyone take seriously our commitment to support the protection of 30% of the world’s oceans? One cannot be achieved without committing to the other. Despite great leadership on that issue, the Foreign Office seems to have hit the buffers somewhat. Those involved, on the inside and on the outside, are, frankly, scratching their heads. Whatever the block, I strongly urge Ministers to be decisive, to be bold and just to get on with it.

I am genuinely grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) for securing this debate. As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee and a well-regarded champion of the recent illegal wildlife trade conference, he takes a close interest in conservation and the environment.

The UK has long understood that, as custodians of the world’s fifth largest marine estate, we and our overseas territories have a responsibility—indeed, a duty—to manage and protect our marine environment. The general public are increasingly aware of the importance of caring for our oceans, in many cases thanks to last year’s excellent “Blue Planet II” series, and understandably they are demanding action. I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to update the House on developments in respect of the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands marine protected area and on wider progress on the Blue Belt initiative.

This morning, I was delighted to welcome the announcement by the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands of a suite of environmental enhancements, including additional marine protected area measures. The announced protections are based on the recommendations of the first five-year review of the territory’s MPA, which has recently concluded. That review was conducted by a panel which included scientists, as well as representatives from the fishing and tourism industries, and environmental groups. The panel’s conclusions were made public on 7 November. It found that the current MPA is achieving its objectives, while also making a series of recommendations further to strengthen protection of the territory’s waters.

Based on those recommendations and other recent scientific work, the Commissioner today announced an expansion of the MPA to cover the territory’s entire maritime zone; an extension of the seasonal closure of the krill fishery, to provide further protection for breeding wildlife; an increase of the marine areas fully closed to commercial fishing activities, to up to 23% of the maritime zone; and the banning of all commercial mineral resource extraction activities, along with prohibitions on the transport of heavy fuel oil, in line with the restrictions that apply in Antarctic waters. The measures are based on precautionary scientific advice and take into account the UK’s rights and responsibilities under the convention for the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, known as CCAMLR. Taken together, the measures will help to ensure that the UK’s stewardship of the islands remains exemplary.

We welcome the engagement that we have had over the past year with many who have an interest in South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, in particular those environmental organisations, including WWF—the World Wide Fund for Nature—and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which have supported scientific work in the territory. We do, however, recognise that some may continue to press us to go further.

As I explained to the House in a similar debate at about this time last year, although on the face of it a simple proposal to close much of that area to all commercial fishing might seem to be a complete no-brainer—not least because there has been no intensive commercial fishing around the South Sandwich Islands for more than 25 years—a variety of scientific and diplomatic factors are in play, all of which need to be considered carefully. Furthermore, the recent MPA review did not reach consensus on whether a full no-take marine reserve around the South Sandwich Islands would deliver any conservation benefits.

Of course, the commissioner’s announcement today is not the end of the story. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands continue to change dramatically as a result of regional climate change. In partnership with the commissioner’s team and the Government’s Blue Belt programme, scientists will undertake further studies in the new year.

The Minister mentioned the diplomatic barriers that still exist. I wonder whether he will elaborate on that. In the light of today’s news about the protection of up to 23% of the area, it seems that the arguments against full protection—displacement activity, dealing with neighbouring states and so on—are exactly the same as those against protecting 23%. Will he elaborate on what those barriers are?

No, I think they become more complicated. I ask my hon. Friend to appreciate that we genuinely would do absolutely everything we could, but we have to look at the diplomatic consequences of sovereignty claims, or whatever one calls them, which complicate doing straightforward things unilaterally. I will say a little more about that in the context of CCAMLR in a second.

To continue what I was saying about the Blue Belt programme, that work will further inform the management of what is a unique and precious territory, as well as contributing to an international krill survey project to gather data to inform international discussions about the future distribution of the krill fishery at CCAMLR.

I am very grateful. Will the Minister give me an assurance that he will push back at scientists to ensure that they embrace the latest scientific understanding of the power of krill to sequester carbon? That may require them to change their modelling. A really high biomass of krill has a fantastic ability to lock up carbon on the seabed. I hope he pushes scientific advisers to ensure that they understand and embrace that emerging scientific understanding.

I think I am known in the Foreign Office for challenging officials very robustly, and on the issue of science I undertake to do exactly that. There is no point in using old science if there is newer, better-informed science available. We really want to set the highest possible scientific standards. In return, I hope that my right hon. Friend accepts that where there is a scientific conclusion, that is what should guide us.

I would like to take this opportunity briefly to update the House on other recent progress through the wider Blue Belt programme. As many colleagues who take a close interest in the programme will be aware, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park said, the UK has to date declared marine protected areas across around 3 million sq km—more than 40%—of British waters. I am pleased to confirm that we remain on course to increase that to 4 million sq km, or around 60% of our waters, by 2020. I hope the House agrees that that will be a remarkable achievement.

As for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, designation of protected areas is not the end of the story. Our overseas territories are working closely with our two main Blue Belt delivery partners—the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science and the Marine Management Organisation—to ensure that each marine protection regime is well designed, well managed, monitored and enforced.

Members may have seen the Blue Belt programme annual update for 2017-18, copies of which were placed in the Libraries of both Houses in July. I will highlight a couple of examples of work that demonstrate the UK’s commitment to the marine protection of our overseas territories. First, the Government’s National Maritime Information Centre provides technical support to monitor and enforce protected areas around our territories, which in turn supports the global fight against illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing. Secondly, a number of scientific expeditions have been undertaken around the overseas territories to assess biodiversity. That is crucial to ensure that we protect the right areas and the most vulnerable species or habitats.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) asked about Ascension. A commitment was made in 2016 to designate a no-take MPA across half of Ascension’s waters, and considerable work has been undertaken in the territory to identify the best location for the MPA based on robust scientific understanding of those waters. It is for the Ascension Island Government to consider the options for an MPA based on the evidence available, and they are currently undertaking a consultation on a range of options, one of which may include designating Ascension as an entire maritime area. In respect of Tristan da Cunha, I can confirm that it is committed to designating marine measures across its maritime zone by 2020. We should all be pleased that so many parliamentary colleagues have recognised and engaged with the ambitious policy direction we have set through the Blue Belt programme.

I am trying to resist intervening too much, but before we move on from Ascension, my understanding is that the Island Council is willing to go for 100% protection but is looking for some kind of assurance from the British Government that it will not be lumbered with the costs. Has my right hon. Friend looked at that, and is he willing to give that assurance?

I cannot give my hon. Friend an absolutely clear answer, because I have not engaged with Ascension on the issue of costs nor, as a Foreign Office Minister, can I make the sort of funding promises he asked for a moment ago. However, I undertake to look into that and to consult him personally to see whether the issue of costs can be properly addressed and understood in order to introduce the maximum possible certainty to reach the objectives we all share.

The announcement today by the Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is further testament to our commitment to ensuring that the UK remains a world leader on marine protection. Simply banning all fishing activity might seem a simple and obvious conservation solution, but I ask the House to appreciate that the reality is a bit more complicated. The Government will continue to work on the basis of science and evidence to deliver tangible marine protection to contribute to the health of the global ocean, while also taking into account the specific circumstances and needs of each of our overseas territories. I hope that all of us in the House from all parties can work together to do our best for the marine environment.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.