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Marine Protected Areas

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 2 May 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Marine Protected Areas.

It is a pleasure to take part in this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Sharma. I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate this issue again, which is one that I feel passionately about and I intend to keep pushing on.

This is not the first time I have pursued this matter on the Floor of the House. Two years ago, I brought forward a private Member’s Bill, the Marine Protected Areas (Bottom Trawling) Bill, with the objective of banning bottom trawling in marine protected areas. Since then, I have been pleased with what the Government have done. They have taken the first steps in the right direction by banning bottom trawling in areas that are particularly important. We were not able to do that when we were part of the common fisheries policy. That Government have made a good start, but while the intent is good, progress is not yet rapid enough and planned measures not extensive enough to provide adequate protection to key species around our shoreline.

I want to set out the measures that are essential if we are to protect and restore a thriving ecosystem around our shores. I do not believe that this needs to be done at the expense of the fishing industry—indeed, it must not be done at its expense. I see no reason why fishing boats from ports around the UK cannot continue to do the important job that they do today. What must stop is the situation where large, industrial-scale boats are able to scalp our seabeds, towing huge mechanisms behind them to hoover up marine life, without regard to what gets trapped in their nets. That is what has got to stop.

Outside the EU, we have a chance to pursue a different course. As we approach the review of the post-Brexit arrangements—that is not too far away now—we need to make sure that we do not leave nature behind when planning the future of the industry. The starting point is our marine protected areas. I have said it before: most people would be astonished to discover that marine protected areas are not really properly protected at all.

Despite measures to protect marine protected areas from damaging fishing gear, ecosystems were subjected to more than 130,000 hours of industrial fishing in 2022; 7,000 of them involved the use of destructive bottom-towed fishing gear. Does the right hon. Member agree that current Government measures are not sufficient to protect MPAs from detrimental fishing practices?

The hon. Member makes an important point about the nature of the equipment and the damage it does to the seabed. I think the Government have made a good start in the process, but there is a way to go.

I want all our marine protected areas to have the same protections that have been introduced to the Dogger Bank. I hope that, after this debate, the Minister and officials will get a move on. The job is not nearly completed. We now have the first four or five areas protected. The Dogger Bank is particularly important, and that is a good start, but every day of needless destruction in other marine protected areas causes more damage to our ecosystems, which will take years and years to restore.

My message to the Minister today, first and foremost, is that we need to get on with stopping these destructive practices altogether. That is why I have particularly focused on bottom trawling. If we destroy the seabed and the habitat of the creatures that live on it, we also deeply damage the food chain for the fish who live there. In doing so, we compound the problem for our fish stocks. To my mind, there is a benefit to the fishing industry in sorting out adequate, proper and appropriate protections for marine life. I do not believe that there are any fishing communities around the UK that want to destroy our fish stocks and create a situation where fishing is unsustainable.

We must prevent the most damaging practices—big industrial trawlers, often coming from continental ports, towing vast mechanisms behind them—simply scalping the seabed and leaving a trail of destruction. We have to take a wholly new approach to managing fish stocks and supporting the industry. As stocks diminish, the industry has had to go further and further afield to stay in business. Our focus therefore must be on helping our fish stocks to recover. Proper protection in marine protected areas is an essential part of that.

If people do not engage in damaging fishing practices and there is only limited scale local fishing, marine protected areas become a breeding ground for new fish. Those fish will spread outside of the protected areas. Fish stocks have shown signs of really recovering in the small number of highly protected marine areas around our shores, and in the waters around them. That approach is beneficial to the fishing industry as well as being of absolute importance to our natural ecosystems. We must step up our approach to restoring the marine environment and managing it well so that both nature and fishing can flourish.

My first ask of the Minister—it is one of a number—is to drive forward with bans on damaging fishing practices in marine protected areas. There really is no reason why that cannot be done in the current Parliament. Let us take responsibility. We have done some great things in government, including taking the legislative framework for nature protection further than it has ever been before. Before we get to a general election, let us be able to say to the country that we have completed the job, that we have provided those protections in the MPAs and that we have done what we started out to do. My message to the Minister is: please, let us get on with it.

We must also take a further step forward and provide even greater protections for our most important waters. As recommended by the Benyon review, I want to see highly protected marine areas around our shores. In such areas, no extractive activity is permitted, and nature can be left to its own devices. In the few areas around the UK where really tough protections have been put in place already, there has been a resultant rapid increase in local marine populations. That has happened only on a very small scale in the UK, but the results have been dramatic. It benefits the surrounding fisheries because if an area’s nature, fish stocks and ecosystems are given a chance to recover, surrounding areas have better fish stocks and healthier marine life. If we look after nature, the benefits work for everyone.

My second request to the Minister is this: let us move to designate our most important ecological areas as highly protected marine areas. If we ban all extractive activity in those areas to help them to recover, we will provide a real boost to the surrounding seas too. I say that fully in the knowledge that we must find a balance for the fishing industry; we cannot just close the fishing industry off from large areas of the waters that it has fished for centuries. However, it is also in the interests of the industry that there are patches where we provide complete protection.

The right hon. Gentleman is being sufficiently general in his terms that I do not think that anyone, even from the fishing industry, would disagree with him. However, he may want to look northwards to the experience of the Scottish Government with their consultation on highly protected marine areas. There is a great deal of advantage in hastening slowly in this area. The right hon. Gentleman really must bring fishing, coastal and island communities with him. Otherwise, he will end up doing something that is ultimately counterproductive to fish conservation. If the right hon. Gentleman can demonstrate the benefits in a small number of areas first, there will be more support from coastal and island communities.

I absolutely take on board the right hon. Gentleman’s point about the need to do this in stages. It is still more important to do this in partnership with the fishing industry and with fishing communities as well. Where there are highly protected marine areas, communities are seeing the benefits. I am not in favour of barging in and saying, “This area of sea that you currently use is closed from tomorrow.” Let us talk to them and work with them to designate areas in a way that works for those communities and for marine life. Let us not approach this on the basis that there should be no more marine protected areas or highly protected marine areas. This can be made to work for both sides.

The right hon. Gentleman has to bear this point in mind. He wants to exclude fishermen for rewilding purposes, but fishermen find themselves excluded from other fishing opportunities as well because of cables, pipelines, aquaculture and offshore renewables. It is a salami-slicing effect. Does he agree that if we are to be effective in creating marine protected areas, or highly protected marine areas, we have to look at it in the round, and not just the HPMAs in isolation?

I accept that we need to look strategically at all our waters to see what the right approach is, but I do not think this is something we can simply not do. The need to protect and restore the ecology around our shores is such that we must take bold steps, although we should take those steps fully aware of the potential impact on coastal communities, and work in full consultation with those communities to identify the best places on which to focus. This is not something we can avoid doing, or even try to avoid doing. We need to step up the pace to provide protections where it is appropriate and most important to do so.

I thank the right hon. Member for being generous and giving way again. The 2015 figures show that 341,000 people were employed full time in the marine economy, with sectors such as marine transport, defence and oil and gas among the largest employers. Does he agree that the Government must balance employment and environmental concerns to ensure that the UK marine economy moves forward in a sustainable manner?

I do not think that there is any contradiction between high-quality environmental protection and employment, and indeed the welfare of communities. It is paramount that we get the marine ecology piece right. We have done so much damage to nature in this country that, frankly, it is to our benefit and our children’s benefit that we start to turn back the clock.

I will touch on another area where there has been a loss that needs to be restored.

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. Before he moves on to another point, I want to follow the previous interventions by accepting that the development of protected areas has to have the support of local fisherpeople. That was the experience of the sites off Lyme Regis and elsewhere in the country.

I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee. From time to time we and other Select Committees have called on the Government to be quicker in their implementation while consulting. Will the right hon. Gentleman, who is experienced in government, give us any insight as to why it has taken more than 10 years to develop the sites this far?

Most immediately, we are only recently free of the common fisheries policy, so it was never that straightforward. We now have the opportunity to get a move on, though. That is why I set a goal for Ministers for this Parliament. I see no reason why we cannot provide, in the course of this Parliament, a ban on bottom trawling in marine protected areas. It does huge damage to the seabed and to ecosystems. Most members of the public in this country, and frankly most people in coastal communities, will be amazed to discover that a large continental fishing boat dragging huge amounts of equipment behind it can scour the seabed. To my mind, that is the first priority. The second is to start looking at additional areas, as the Benyon review recommended, where localised no-take areas can be put in place to help the ecology recover.

My next point is about the seabed itself, which is crucial. We hear a lot about the need to plant trees and reforest degraded areas. As hon. Members know, I am passionate about my view that deforestation is a blight internationally and needs to be reversed. However, the loss of seabed habitats—kelp and seagrass—also has a big ecological impact, and we must deal with that as well. We have seen huge loss of seagrass beds around the world and around this country. Restoring and expanding the seagrass and kelp beds on our shores and under our waters is important because it helps local marine ecosystems and is a rather quicker way of absorbing carbon than planting a tree. The Government and all those who work in this field should be eagerly pursuing the opportunity for this country to contribute to our 2050 net zero goal by restoring the traditional kelp and seagrass beds around our shores.

My third request to the Minister is, therefore, for regulatory and financial support for those working to restore seagrass beds and kelp forests. We have lost 90% of our seagrass beds, with a corresponding loss of small marine creatures; many species are vulnerable to disappearing altogether. That would be a sensible, logical part of the good Government strategy over the coming decade of turning around the loss of nature in this country. Of course, there is a financial benefit too, and groups that work in this field have highlighted a number of areas where the UK can benefit financially from a smarter approach to marine protection, but it is not about money. It is just the right thing to do. It is also necessary to protect our future.

I very much hope that the Minister will follow up on all three of those requests, but I also want to touch on an area outside the United Kingdom: the future of the marine areas we do not control around the world. I pay tribute to the UK team that played an active part in the recent negotiations to secure the international agreement on the future of our oceans. As they did at the COP summit, the Government have continued to play a leading role internationally in seeking better protection for and the recovery of nature. That is clearly a very good thing, and Ministers and officials should take credit for it.

I commend the ethos behind the blue planet fund and the Government’s commitment to aid developing countries in protecting marine environments, but it is vital that the many workers in the microplastic industry are given the opportunity to transition into alternative jobs. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the blue planet fund must be inclusive and sensitive to the economic realities of developing countries?

We clearly have to be sensitive to the issues in developing countries, but they do not benefit from a damaged environment. I see this proposal as beneficial to everyone on the planet. I do not see any downside to living on a cleaner, greener planet. It will bring different kinds of job opportunities. There are many opportunities across the developing world—renewable energy is an opportunity in parts of the world that are hotter and windier than the UK—so it is not an either/or. There are benefits to pursuing an environmental strategy and an economic strategy.

International agreements are all well and good, but to make those strategies work, it is action that matters. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing around the world remains a huge problem, despite the international community’s readiness to talk positively about growing the number of marine protected areas around the world. That is a good thing, but those areas have to be protected. Illegal activity is doing real damage around the world. It is making fish stocks much less sustainable, and is having a big negative impact on smaller coastal communities. One of the key steps to deal with that problem and to protect our marine protected areas is to require every fishing vessel around the world to have satellite monitoring devices on board and to keep them switched on. Even in our own waters, boats occasionally go dark, but elsewhere it is a particular problem. I will be grateful if the Minister touches briefly on what the Government are and will be doing to address this issue.

There is also a job to be done onshore. I have long argued for a system of food labelling in this country that indicates clearly how sustainable the product and its supply chain are. A lot of the focus has been on products such as palm oil from south-east Asia and soy from Brazil, and we need to keep pushing on those issues. It is very much a current problem: recently, beef from deforested areas of Brazil ended up on Tesco shelves. We in this House should clearly keep the pressure up, to ensure that we bring about the right international pressure against deforestation, and that the Government do what they can to move us in the right direction.

We really have to step up progress on food labelling. When the Environment Act 2021 was before Parliament, I pushed the issue of moving towards a system of sustainable food labelling. Ministers made encouraging noises, and committed to doing work on that, which I know they are, although I want to see it happen straightaway, or pretty much straightaway. May I ask the Minister to give the Chamber an update on that work and on when we can expect a proper sustainable food labelling system to come to fruition? Unless and until we can demonstrate to consumers that the products they are buying are from sustainable sources, or that they are not, so consumers can take a decision not to buy them, we will not bring to bear the full weight of consumer power on this issue.

There are always limits to what Governments can do, but consumer power, harnessed in the right way, can probably make a bigger difference than any politician can. We need to bring the full strength of consumer power to bear on marine protection, environmental protection, combating deforestation, and creating a greener, more nature-friendly world. That is basically my message to the Minister. Let us get on with completing the work on banning bottom trawling from all marine protected areas. Let us start the process of going further in expanding highly protected areas, though not in a way that completely cripples the local fishing industry. Let us work with the industry to do that, but let us get a move on to make it happen. Let us do what we can around the world to turn the recent international agreements on illegal fishing into action.

Let us move to bring in sustainable food labelling in this country, and let us continue to focus, on both sides of the House, on the protection and restoration of nature, whether it is seagrass beds, kelp forests or the things that we need to do on land. This is an agenda that the nation increasingly feels passionate about. There is a real need for action before further damage is done, but the opportunity is enormous. We can make a real difference over the next decade, so my message to the Minister and the Government is please get on with it.

As always, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing the debate. I know that he is passionate about this issue. I agree with everything that he said, except the little blip about the common fisheries policy being responsible for everything; he would not expect me to agree on that.

It has been a long time since the last Labour Government drew up plans for an ecologically coherent network of marine protected areas around our coast. Since then, I have served on the Environmental Audit Committee. We did really good reports into the fact that what we really had was a system of little more than paper parks, where protections were not properly enforced. It was far from coherent. Obviously, the Benyon review was important, but it seemed to me yet another way of kicking things into the long grass. We are still nowhere near the position in which we need to be.

I will focus on one specific point, and suggest one way of ensuring that marine protected areas are genuinely protected, not just now but in perpetuity, and not polluted or plundered for the sake of short-term gains. Rather than looking at what we should not do in those areas, I will look at positive interventions—what we can do to create more value in these areas and give more people a vested interest. I hope that people would be motivated by the need to protect the planet and a love of biodiversity and our marine environment, but we know that financial interests can be powerful, too. We heard in some of the interventions a worry about the economic impact of marine protected areas. I will talk about how they could attract financial investment. In doing so, I will talk specifically about seagrass, which the right hon. Member touched on.

At the moment, we do not really value seagrass. The UK has lost nearly half of our seagrass beds since the 1930s. Globally, they are declining by 7% a year. They are the fastest disappearing habitat on the planet. We hear a lot from climate campaigners about rainforests, because we can see them—they are not hidden under water—but seagrass is just as, if not more, important, and I will come on to say why. Boats anchoring, fishing activity and sewage are all damaging seagrass. One problem is that boat users do not actually know where the seagrass beds are, which is another point I will come on to.

We think that 98% of carbon stored in the UK’s seafloor is in areas with no trawling restrictions, and the right hon. Member focused on bottom trawling. I come back to the value of protecting our marine environment, in terms of carbon sequestration and the importance of nature-based solutions to climate change, and creating nature markets.

Seagrass is 35 times more efficient at absorbing carbon than rainforest, alongside its biodiversity benefits. The Marine Conservation Society says that the UK’s salt marshes, which are very much part of the mix, and seagrass beds have

“the carbon storage potential of between 1,000 and 2,000 km2 of tropical forests.”

Damaging that habitat comes at a huge environmental cost. According to the Climate Change Committee, the organic carbon stored in the soils of marine ecosystems is equivalent to around 17% of the UK’s total emissions. That was calculated in 2020. Damaging those ecosystems risks releasing all that carbon into the atmosphere. We need to protect our seagrass meadows and our seabeds, and we need to enhance them.

During the Easter recess, I went down to Plymouth and met the Ocean Conservation Trust at Plymouth’s National Marine Aquarium. Two weeks before that, I went to an event hosted by the Crown Estate on the launch of the blue carbon accelerator programme, which is really interesting. I met the Ocean Conservation Trust to hear about its seagrass programme, and what is needed to scale it up. It nurtures the seagrass plants onshore and then plants them on the seabed. Investment of around £5 million is needed to scale that up, of which the trust has raised £1 million.

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) told me that a self-planting, self-replicating seagrass meadow has been discovered near his constituency, but the general feeling is that there is a need for onshore growing, followed by mechanical planting on the seabed—when I say mechanical, I mean divers going down and planting by hand.

In the first instance, creating more seagrass meadows would be about nature, such as creating breeding grounds for fish, and creating more biodiversity. That ties in with the points made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael). We will not have a fishing industry if we take all the fish out of the sea. That is common sense; the debate in the past has been quite frustrating. We have to fish sustainably. Seagrass meadows are a wonderful breeding ground for the fish stocks of the future.

In the short term, seagrass meadows are about nature and biodiversity. In the longer term, the carbon sequestration benefits could also be huge, but there is a difficulty in evaluation at the moment. The Climate Change Committee has said that there are currently no estimates of carbon accumulation rates in UK seagrass ecosystems, and that UK-specific data is urgently needed. We also need a seagrass code, so that it can be properly accounted for.

Last month, we heard about the discovery of one of the UK’s largest seagrass beds off the coast of Cornwall, in St Austell bay. I was surprised—the seagrass bed is absolutely massive, it is not that far out from shore and it is not that deep; this is not like not knowing what is at the bottom of our very deepest oceans. The fact that it has remained undiscovered for so long shows how little we know about our marine environment, as opposed to what is on land.

Now that we have discovered that seagrass bed, we need to protect it. According to the joint report from the Cornwall Wildlife Trust and Natural England, St Austell bay currently benefits from only one formal marine protected area designation, a special protection area. The report notes that:

“Understanding the current legislative processes and that further formal designations are unlikely to be assigned to this site in the near future, Cornwall Wildlife Trust recommends that a whole site approach for the management of the SPA is considered thus protecting the associated habitats, in this case the seagrass and maerl, from damaging marine activity, such as bottom-towed fishing.”

The authors of the report said that a lack of funding limited their survey work, so what support can the Minister give people who are carrying out valuable work such as that and trying to discover exactly what we have around our shores? There is potentially a really big benefit from making the initial outlay, finding out what we have and then being able to place a proper value on it.

The Office for National Statistics conservatively valued the annual carbon sequestration of our marine and coastal ecosystems at £57.5 billion, which means that the UK seabed is more valuable as a carbon sink than as a source of fossil fuels and fishing.

A report by the Marine Conservation Society, Deloitte, and Whale and Dolphin Conservation—[Interruption.] I have a very on-brand cup here, from Surfers Against Sewage—contrasts the mechanisms and voluntary carbon markets that support investment in terrestrial nature solutions, not least the woodland code and the peatland code, with the

“significant lack of existing or scalable mechanisms…to incentivise or mandate private sector investment in ocean restoration.”

That goes back to what I said about the need for a seagrass code and the progress being made on the saltmarsh code. I have been told at events such as the one at the Crown Estate, which I mentioned, that there is plenty of private sector financing available for blue carbon projects. The problem is a lack of projects to invest in, a lack of data and a lack of certainty. We need to improve monitoring, verification and reporting. As the MCS report said:

“Without robust scientific data, creating investable ocean projects and markets is problematic.”

Last year, the Climate Change Committee recommended that saltmarsh and seagrass be included in the greenhouse gas inventory, and called for a roadmap to identify the additional data required to enable that to happen. In response, the Government accepted that there were

“significant data gaps surrounding emissions from coastal wetlands (including saltmarsh and seagrass habitats), activity data regarding extraction activities, and habitat extent which hinder the accurate reporting of emissions from these habitats.”

The Government said that such information must be collected before a decision on inclusion in the greenhouse gas inventory can be made.

As I understand it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has established a cross-Administration UK blue carbon evidence partnership to make progress on the evidence base for blue carbon, and I hope that the Minister can give us an update on how that is going. I also remind her that she promised me a meeting when, at DEFRA questions, I asked how the Department was working with the newly created Department for Energy Security and Net Zero on nature-based solutions. I would like to gently chase her up on that, because it would be really useful to see how we can make progress.

I have talked about the positive side—the potential—and now I want to flag up something that is very worrying. This was contained in the briefing sent to MPs today by Uplift, an organisation that provides the secretariat for the all-party group for climate change. Some 900 locations in the UK’s oceans have been offered as sites of development for oil and gas extraction in the latest offshore oil and gas licensing round, and more than a third of them clash with marine protected areas. I do not expect the Minister to comment on the Government’s dash for more fossil fuel extraction—I know that is a matter for another Department—but she should be very concerned about the overlap with marine protected areas.

If this is approved by the Government, the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field, Rosebank, will have a pipeline through the Faroe-Shetland sponge belt marine protected area, potentially harming this fragile ecosystem. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is not still present, because he might have wanted to intervene on me on that issue. This habitat is already assessed as being in an unfavourable condition, and efforts should be under way to recover it, not to approve a new oil and gas development. Modelling shows that a major oil spill from Rosebank could risk serious impact to at least 16 UK marine protected areas, so I hope that we can hear something from the Minister on how the desire to protect marine protected areas—which I am sure she will tell us all about—squares with what another Government Department is seeking to do in terms of our future energy use.

It is a real pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Sharma. It is good to be back in Westminster Hall to discuss such an important topic, and I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) for his interest in this matter and for bringing it before the House. I am pleased to see his progress—I hope that he will continue his journey of enlightenment and that we will see him on our Benches before too long. 

This is a busy week for many across the House who represent communities who will be exercising their democratic right on Thursday. I am sure that if this debate was on at any other time, we would have seen a lot more Members taking part. Mindful of parliamentary convention, and the visit that Parliament received this morning, I extend my best wishes, and those of the Opposition and the people of Newport West, to all those involved in the coronation.

We are an island nation, and our seas, oceans, rivers and lakes have been at the core of what we are as a country for generations. As well as their economic power, our seas and oceans support a range of diverse marine ecosystems. They provide rich biodiversity and act as important carbon stores, as has been made clear this afternoon.

It is a matter of no surprise to anyone sitting here, or any of the millions of people throughout our country, that our marine environment and the creatures and species that call it home now face innumerable threats from human activity. That is made worse by inaction when it comes to cleaning and protecting our waters. We can all see the damage caused by waste and toxins from dredging and dragging the seabed, which also destroys corals, maerls and sandbanks. I suspect that all colleagues across the House will agree that marine protected areas are an important tool in safeguarding our ocean’s future. It is important that we are focused, committed and ambitious in how we protect our natural waters.

In advance of this debate, I received a very helpful briefing from the Marine Conservation Society, and I pay tribute to it for all the work it does to raise awareness and campaign to secure real policy change. In the briefing, it was noted that on the 28 February 2023, DEFRA announced three new highly protected marine areas: Allonby bay in the Irish sea; Dolphin Head in the channel; and the north east of Farnes Deep in the North sea. That is to be welcomed, but, as ever, it is simply not enough. Those sites represent less than 0.5% of English seas, and I urge the Minister to break the 13-year-long habit and show the ambition needed to respond to the climate and nature crises that we see all around us.

Marine protected areas play a vital role in combating climate change. We know that healthy seas enable the sequestration and storage of atmospheric carbon dioxide, as I touched on and as my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) expanded on eloquently—I do not propose to go over what she already said. When blue carbon habitats, such as seaweed and seagrass ecosystems, are degraded and the seabed is disturbed, stored carbon is released back into the water column and could re-enter the atmosphere. By protecting and rewilding our marine environments, we can keep carbon locked in the ocean through increased numbers and biomass of marine species and healthier marine habitats.

Marine ecosystems will play a key role if the UK is to meet its ambitions for net zero by 2050, particularly as the UK has one of the world’s largest exclusive economic zones and governs substantially more marine territory than terrestrial. The area of UK MPAs is 27% greater than that of the entirety of the UK land area. As such, by making MPAs rich with life, we will materially help carbon storage on a massive scale.

I would be grateful if the Minister outlined where discussions regarding the UK’s largest undeveloped oil field, Rosebank, are now, as the hon. Member for Bristol East asked. I suspect the Minister will share the concerns that, if approved, a pipeline will be installed right through the Faroe-Shetland sponge belt marine protected area. That would potentially harm an already fragile ecosystem and the creatures within it, such as quahogs—who knew there was such a thing?—a type of clam that can live for hundreds of years. The area is visited by numerous species of dolphin and whales, as well as multiple species of seabirds, and commercial species, such as haddock. The habitat is already assessed as being in an unfavourable condition, and efforts should be under way to recover it as best as possible.

Climate change is already having severe impacts on the world’s oceans, but oil and gas developments can have direct impacts, including: pollution from oil spills; the release of toxic chemicals through exploration, drilling and infrastructure decommissioning; the release of microplastic waste; and noise from seismic blasting. Will the Minister outline what safeguards will be put in place to mitigate any negative impact?

The matter of marine protected areas is an important one, so I thank the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell for bringing it before us today. I want to be clear that Labour wants to see—and we will deliver—a bold and comprehensive plan to protect and clean our waters. We all know that healthy seabeds are home to many species, and we need to see a broader programme of ocean and sea renewal. Will the Minister outline in clear terms her policy on ocean and sea renewal? I am happy for her to write to me, if she would prefer to do that.

I would also be grateful if she could outline what discussions—and when they took place—she has had with the First Minister and the Environment Minister in Wales, the Cabinet Secretary and First Minister in Scotland, and officials in the Northern Ireland Office and Northern Ireland civil service about her proposals for ocean renewal. As all parts of our United Kingdom are bordered by sea, it is vital that comprehensive discussion takes place across devolved Governments.

Globally, saltmarsh and seagrass beds alone can store up to 450 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year. That is almost half the emissions of the entire global transport industry. Imagine what more we can do to preserve our planet and protect our environment by doing just a little bit more and going a little bit further, faster. Restoring and protecting key marine ecosystems can lock up billions of tonnes of carbon each year—as much as 5% of the savings needed globally. A sustained programme of ocean renewal must be part of any plan to tackle the climate emergency. It is time the Minister started to implement this plan, and fast.

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Mr Sharma. Although this topic does not fall under my brief at DEFRA, but rather that of my noble Friend Lord Benyon in the other place, I am pleased to represent his responsibilities today and to respond to a real champion for the environment in Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) has spoken on this subject and submitted parliamentary questions many times. I pay tribute to his advocacy for the marine environment in particular.

Marine protected areas are of particular importance to DEFRA because we recognise that they are one of the many tools in the toolkit to protect the wide range of precious and sensitive habitats, which all Members have recognised the importance of. We have created more than 100 MPAs since 2010, and now have 178, covering around 40% of English waters. MPAs protect specific habitats and species within the designated site, so that those features can recover to a favourable condition.

As set out in the environmental improvement plan published on 31 January, we have targets to ensure that percentages reach those favourable conditions. We are focusing on MPAs because we recognise that they are a vital part of the story. It is essential that they are robustly protected, as has been eloquently said today, otherwise they will do no good at all. I hope I can set out how we are protecting them, outline the progress that has been made, answer Members’ points and possibly commit to writing to hon. Members where more detailed responses are required.

The EIP—environmental improvement plan—describes how fisheries byelaws in the first four offshore MPAs came into force last year, providing protection from bottom-towed fishing gear. The Marine Management Organisation is working speedily, has consulted this year on protections for a further 13 MPAs and is now analysing responses to that consultation. We aim to have all necessary byelaws in place in our MPAs to protect them from damaging fishing activity by the end of 2024. Since we are no longer bound by the common fisheries process, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell rightly pointed out, we will be able to make more progress. The Marine Management Organisation and the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities have engaged fully with the fishing industry and other stakeholders, and will continue to do so. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly referred to the importance of working with the fishing industry, and all Members agreed.

I will set out some of the financial support that has been given to the fishing sector. We have allocated £32.7 million a year to support the UK seafood sector through to 2024-25. That settlement enables each of the four fishing Administrations of the UK to invest in their industries by delivering financial support schemes tailored to the specific needs of their sectors. In addition, the £100 million UK seafood fund was announced on Christmas eve 2020, following the conclusion of the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. The fund was set up to support the long-term future and sustainability of the UK fisheries and seafood sector.

I will give just a couple of examples of how the fisheries sector is being supported to transition. As I mentioned, the targets set out in the environmental improvement plan are published, and we have a statutory target to have 70% of designated features in MPAs in a favourable condition by 2042, with the remainder in a recovering condition. Our analysis shows that by putting in place by 2024 the MPA byelaws that I have mentioned we will be able to meet our interim statutory target of 48% of designated features in MPAs being in a favourable condition, with the remainder in a recovering condition, by 2028.

I thank the Minister for giving way; I am very grateful for her time today. She has talked a lot about the targets, and we all agree that we need to have objectives, but what about enforcement? I am listening carefully to her speech. What enforcement will be done? How will the enforcement be undertaken? I am not clear at the moment how we will protect the MPAs. Having them on paper is great, but we need to protect them.

Earlier the hon. Member mentioned a potential oil and gas project. This is one example of how we will ensure that environmental concerns are fundamental to any approval. Clearly, that will be the responsibility of the Scottish Government, but the assessment is being done by OPRED, the Offshore Petroleum Regulator for Environment and Decommissioning, which is part of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. In response to the hon. Member’s specific question about the regulation and perhaps any penalties that will be enforced, I would appreciate it if she would allow me or my noble Friend in the other place to write to her. We use a mix of strategies. The MMO ensures compliance by desk-based reviews of fishing vessel trackers and also site-based inspection, but I recognise that the hon. Member really wants to understand the regulatory and penalty process.

Following the work of my right hon. Friend Lord Benyon and the consultation last year, we have announced that we will be designating the first three pilot highly protected marine areas by 6 July and will explore additional sites later this year. These are areas of the sea that will allow for the highest level of protection in our waters and full recovery of marine ecosystems, and will exclude all fishing. For highly protected marine areas to be successful, we will need to work hand in hand with the fishing industry, other marine industries and sea users in designating, managing and monitoring them. I hope that that demonstrates the Government’s ambition to restore our marine environment with strengthened protections.

We need to do all we can in a way that helps to deliver a thriving and sustainable fishing industry alongside a healthy marine environment, as set out in our joint fisheries statement. We recognise that there are growing spatial tensions between industries such as fishing, the renewable energy sector, dredging, and the oil and gas industry, alongside the need to conserve and enhance our marine environment.

“Bottom trawling” is a broad term describing methods of pulling fishing gear along the seabed to catch fish and/or shellfish. Bottom trawls are used by all parts of the fishing fleet, from small day boats to large offshore vessels. It is important to recognise that approximately 30% of the tonnage and 45% of the value of fish landed by UK vessels in 2021—that includes cod, plaice and scallop—came from bottom trawling.

Bottom trawling and other fishing methods will be stopped only where they are having a negative impact on the habitats or species protected by each MPA. For example, netting and potting are allowed to continue in many MPAs, including Dogger Bank—which has been discussed today—given that they do not have the same impacts as bottom trawling. Bottom trawling can continue in parts of the Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge MPA, which does not contain protected features such as Sabellaria reefs, which are sensitive to bottom trawling.

A blanket ban on bottom trawling in all MPAs, which some are calling for, has the appeal of simplicity, but in some cases would involve unnecessary restrictions. We are determined to protect our MPAs as properly as possible, but want to do so in ways that will not involve unnecessary impacts on activities such as fishing. Ensuring that all vessels, including those under 12 metres in length, have inshore vessel monitoring systems installed will enable more efficient decisions on local and national management measures and policies.

The Marine Management Organisation and the inshore fisheries and conservation authorities have embarked on a programme of detailed site-by-site assessments of each MPA. Each assessment is informed by scientific advice on what types of fishing can take place. Byelaws are then designed accordingly, restricting those types of fishing found to be an issue in each site. I recognise that this detailed approach takes more time than a blanket ban, but it is well worth it to avoid unnecessary impacts on our fishing industry.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell referenced illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. That provides me with an opportunity to provide an update on the situation. We stand proudly on a global stage; my right hon. Friend mentioned the COPs, and a number of global collaborations and agreements. At the 2022 United Nations Ocean Conference, the UK, US and Canada launched the Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated Fishing Action Alliance, which brings together state and non-state actors to tackle the illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing of which my right hon. Friend spoke. Through committing to implement international agreements, promote active monitoring, control and surveillance, and encourage transparency and data sharing, the IUU-AA—a mouthful, Mr Sharma —is growing in momentum, and it has recently welcomed the EU, Chile, Panama and New Zealand to its membership.

The UK’s blue belt ocean shield aims to tackle the challenges of IUU fishing and unlawful marine activities around the UK overseas territories, using innovative technology. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell said, that technology will be critical in this fight. Through surveillance techniques, alongside comprehensive compliance and enforcement frameworks, territories are ensuring that over 4.3 million square kilometres of ocean are protected under this measure.

We will continue to work with the industry to ensure it meets the requirements of the regulation and avoids those illegal, unreported and unregulated methods, as my right hon. Friend set out. The Marine Management Organisation and IFCAs have embarked on that programme. The site-based protection does not mitigate potential impacts from these vessels on the targeted, highly migratory stocks. Although most of what those vessels fish is covered by coastal state quota allocations, the Government are looking closely at what our policies for them should be. It is important that those decisions are based on evidence and that we work with the fishing sector.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell also asked me for an update on labelling. I am afraid I do not have specific information on the sustainability of seafood labelling, but will happily write to him on that point. He is correct that we are taking action under the forest risk commodities provisions to ensure that products bought in this country have not contributed to illegal deforestation. That same kind of sustainability must also be in place for seafood and the like, so I will endeavour to provide that information.

We do have seafood labelling that means that seafood must be traceable from catch—or harvest—to the point of retail sale. In England, the MMO is responsible for ensuring seafood traceability from catch to first point of sale. That is currently achieved through a range of controlled measures requiring the submission of data by both fishers and merchants. Traceability provides assurance to consumers and associated benefits to all fully compliant agents within the industry supply chain.

Finally—I hope that I have covered all points so far—we have taken huge strides in protecting and recovering precious marine life. I would like to be able to say more about seagrass and kelp, which the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned, but I am afraid that I will have to write to her because I do not have the information to hand. I was particularly interested to learn about her examples off the shores of Cornwall and Plymouth. When we arrange the meeting I promised a couple of weeks ago—which I will absolutely ensure happens—perhaps she could be bring me further details, as I would certainly like to understand more about the benefits of seagrass and how we can support those organisations.

Highly protected marine areas will ensure that the UK plays its part in achieving the global 30 by 30 target. More broadly, we are also taking steps outside of protected areas, such as our consultation on banning the industrial fishing of sand eels and our progress on our six frontrunner fisheries management plans. I have set out the impressive rate of progress over the 178 marine protected areas, but there is always more to do. For further reading, I always recommend the environmental improvement plan—all 262 pages of it—which covers the 10 goals across DEFRA to ensure that we leave this environment in a better place than we found it in.

This has been a helpful and informative debate. As the Minister said, the noble Lord Benyon holds this portfolio, but she will no doubt be assiduous in communicating the nature of what has been said to her colleague—as I am sure the officials will too—so I am grateful to her for stepping in and making some very helpful points.

I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones); I am not on a journey. Conservatives are, by nature, conservative, and I do not think that there is much contradiction in being Conservative and being focused on conservation—they do rather go together.

Since 2010, this Government have been to places that no previous Government have been, by putting in place measures that will be needed to reverse the loss of wildlife in this country. However, as the Minister says, although it is a good start, there is a long way to go and there is always more to do. The purpose of this debate is really to give DEFRA a hefty nudge. I know that officials like to take their time to go through the responses and work thoroughly to prepare the strategies, but we do need to get on with this. Of course, there is likely to a major political event next year, and it would be very nice, by the time that we get to that, to be able to point to some real further steps in marine protected areas.

When arguing for change, I have always been careful not to say that a ban on bottom trawling in MPAs should be absolute; there will, of course, be localised exceptions for small boats—DEFRA can work with that—but I do not buy the argument that a blanket ban is wrong. I would prefer a blanket ban with some thoughtful exceptions rather than a whole paraphernalia of stuff that eventually, step by step by step, gets to something approximating a ban. Let’s do it the other way around: let’s look at where we need the exceptions and get on with it. Every week or month that goes past sees a continued degradation in too many areas, particularly from large industrial ships.

I agree with the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Newport West, on enforcement. We really need to get that right. I would like to see some measures to ban from UK waters all together vessels, such as big industrial trawlers, that break the rules when the ban is in place. I hope we will see proper enforcement and real consequences, so that people do not break the rules.

As I have said, this has been a good start—with a long way to go. We need a bit of a foot on the accelerator, as we cannot afford to wait longer for the measures that need to be taken. I have set out today some things that I want to see happen, but my message to Ministers is this: thank you for listening, but please accelerate now, because, both politically and naturally—in conservation terms—time is not on our side.

Question put and agreed to. 


That this House has considered Marine Protected Areas.

Sitting suspended.