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Marine Protected Areas

Volume 691: debated on Wednesday 17 March 2021

I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to facilitate the new hybrid arrangements. I call Tony Lloyd to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the extension of marine protected areas.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. Marine protected areas are of enormous importance not only to our country and our coastal seas, but to the whole world. Our oceans are massively complicated systems and not properly understood, but we know how important they are to human life. For example, some 25% of the carbon gases produced by human activity are absorbed by the ocean. Some of that is good and some of it leads to the acidification of our seas, which is less good. We know, and the United Kingdom Government and the United Nations are in agreement, that our oceans are now at a critical point. Some 1% have protection but scientists think that a minimum of 30% require protection, to allow our oceans to restore and recover.

Sadly, over-fishing and industrial fishing are still with us, putting whole species of fish at risk. The yellowfin tuna, for example, is now endangered and could cease to exist within a relatively small number of years. The massively destructive use of bottom trawlers—those that scour our oceans, ripping up the seabed and the basis for the biodiversity that allows the fish to spawn and flourish—is doing enormous damage across the world and in the seas off these islands of ours.

We also know that the use of the oceans as a dustbin for human activity cannot go on. Plastic pollution is across our oceans. Even in the deepest recesses of the oceans, many miles down, we now find plastic waste from human activity. Using our oceans as a dump for our sewage is simply no longer acceptable. I can remember a time when the sewage boat from Manchester went out into the Mersey bay and dumped sewage—admittedly treated sewage, but nevertheless sewage—into the Irish sea. Such practices have stopped in the UK, but they must also be stopped worldwide.

Of course, there are questions about antibiotics in our seas and the short and long-term impact that will have. There are even questions about the destruction of the efficiency of antibiotics for human use. We need international action, and it is clear that we need United Nations treaties to govern the use of the sea as a resource. There is a call by scientists, for example, for a moratorium on the fishing of mesopelagic fish that lie at a depth of between 200 metres and 1,000 metres. It is up to our Government to operate internationally and to call for action at a global level.

Whether the UK has less influence today post Brexit is a moot point that we can debate on another occasion. It is a real issue, although I welcome yesterday’s announcement of the new fisheries agreement between Norway, the European Union and the UK. That is an important step forward in rebuilding the trust that has been lost recently. In fairness, the UK Government have entered an era where there are some very good examples of our international obligations in care for the sea. The protection zone, for example, around St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha is important. I think that Tristan da Cunha is the largest protected area of ocean on the planet. It was a welcome step by our country and Government.

I want to concentrate the bulk of my remarks on UK inshore and offshore seas. The cycle of carbon capture, and the maintenance of productive fishing as a resource for human consumption, depend on the biodiversity in particular of our inshore and offshore seas. Those things are most likely to have an impact closest to our coast. The sea is massively important as a source of carbon capture, and we can increase or decrease that. On an international level, in practice, before I talk about our own coast, maintaining the mangrove swamps and seagrasses—and more locally our salt marshes—is of huge importance for carbon capture; but biodiversity of the oceans is of fundamental importance.

There are good examples. The Lyme bay experiment has yielded positive results and shown what can be done, with less fishing but more fish being caught. It is a measure of how far the productivity of the oceans has declined that we can now demonstrate that we can increase the productivity of fishing with less intensive methods. When we fish less intensively there is an increase in the number of coastal fish such as pollock, cod and wrasse, which used to abound around our coast but have now become much scarcer. However, they increase once again if we take care to manage the resources around our coast.

Our coasts are not yet in the state that we would want: 25% of the UK’s seas and 40% of our inshore seas are in some form of marine protected area, but we face problems. The Government’s marine strategy report revealed that only four of the 11 indicators of good environmental status are met across our local seas. There are problems to do with nomadic fishing practices: the practices of those who come into an area without having been there before, fish and overfish, and disappear, perhaps for some years, to come back when it suits them but does not suit the biodiversity we are trying to encourage. In 2019 supertrawlers with bottom dredges engaged in 3,000 hours of fishing in our offshore marine protected areas. It is estimated that in the first half of 2020, that level of overfishing had already doubled. We have huge problems and have to take action, or the destruction of our seas will continue.

I am bound to welcome—and I do welcome—the steps that have been taken already, with the creation of the many marine protection areas around our coast. There are hundreds of them. However, we have a patchwork with different rules and regimes operating in different areas. We need to look forward to something to give greater consistency around the coastline. There are differences, it is sad to recall, between the English, Welsh and Scottish coasts. Of course Ireland is a different regime, but Northern Ireland, again, has different practices. We need consistency. I welcome the fact that the Government are looking at Dogger Bank and south Dorset for the banning of bottom trawling—that is so important because of the impact of bottom trawlers—but of course, that means that of the 76 offshore marine protection areas, only two will potentially have that kind of protection. We need a more joined-up strategy.

There has been progress, as I have said. Lyme Bay is a tremendously powerful example of what happens when we take a whole-site approach and say, “We are looking at the protection not just of individual species, but of the total biodiversity of an area.” That is important. The ban on electric pulse fishing has been another major step forward. I am a reluctant Brexiteer even to this day, but that ban has demonstrated that, where we now have the power to use UK law, we can take positive steps and move things forward. The Prime Minister spoke recently about the need to ban the vessels that “hoover up” our oceans, and he was right to call for that, but we need action to ensure that a ban comes into operation.

We need the UK Government to move forward on a total strategy for our shores and oceans. We have some of the best marine scientists in the world, and we have the capacity, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, to be a leader in the demand for international change, but we need a total UK marine strategy that looks after our own shores—both inshore and offshore—and gives leadership on and commitment to ensuring that we cherish oceans around the world as something for the future, not simply as dumps for the past or as a resource to exploit and destroy.

A total international strategy would begin the move towards protecting the 30% of our oceans that we have to protect. The UK Government are committed to that, but not yet. My first call is for the UK to operate internationally to look for the kinds of global treaties that will make a material difference, give protection to our oceans, and bring sustainability for the future. My second call is for a whole-site approach to our inshore and offshore seas to join up the work that has been done across the marine protection areas off our coasts. It is tremendously important that we move in that direction.

Perhaps the most important call at the moment is for some consistency in challenging the practice of bottom trawling by super trawlers, which destroys the ocean bed. As our Prime Minster has already said in recent months, we have to stop those who would hoover up not only the fish, but the seabed, which will take many years to recreate. If we bring an end to bottom trawling in our offshore seas, we will have taken a huge step forward.

I appreciate that this is something that we have to take with care. I know that there is suspicion in the European Union that the Dogger Bank ban is being done for nationalistic fishing reasons, but we have to demonstrate clearly that it is actually being done for scientific marine protection reasons. If we can get those arguments across, we can begin to make a material difference to the biodiversity across our seas.

I say to the Minister that although the Government have done some seriously good things, which I genuinely applaud, I look forward to a joined-up marine strategy that says that we will take the lead internationally to protect our oceans, that we will take a whole-site approach to our marine protection areas, and that we will guarantee that the unacceptable practice of bottom trawling by super trawlers is brought to an end.

I feel as though this is a very personal debate, with just Dame Angela, me and the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd), whom I thank for securing the debate. From what he said, we have a great deal in common and share a great deal of interest in this area. I am not going to say it is all perfect, but I will say that I genuinely think we are driving in the direction that he is very keen for us to go.

The hon. Member recalled the dumping of raw sewage in the Mersey. I had the perhaps ignominious role of going out on the last ever shipment of raw sewage to be dumped in the River Severn when I was a new reporter, and jolly smelly it was. However, that has all stopped, which is a great move. We do not want to see that again.

As I said, the hon. Member and I share a great deal of interest in the wonderfully rich UK marine life and in our marine protected areas, where we have protected the most precious habitats and species. We have three types of protections that come within what we generally call MPAs: marine conservation zones, special protection areas, and special areas of conservation. They all contribute towards our having an ecologically coherent network of MPAs. I hope I can demonstrate that we have a clear strategy for our marine space, but that is not to say there is not work to do. Having left the EU, we now have a great many more opportunities to do a lot of what we really want to do in the marine space.

It is worth looking back at how far we have come in recent years in order to build up the network. Just 10 years ago, there were only a small number of MPAs scattered throughout our waters. Since then, huge amounts of work have been undertaken by the Government, agencies and stakeholders through surveying and other means. The hon. Member mentioned that we have a fantastic groundswell of scientists in this country—experts and specialists in the marine space. They have all been feeding into this endeavour, which has allowed us to identify and designate the network of MPAs in order to protect the very special habitats and species found around our waters.

We now have 371 MPAs—I think the hon. Member will agree that that is quite some achievement—which cover 38% of the area. In England, there are 178 MPAs, covering 40% of English waters. That really is a very big achievement in what is quite a short space of time. However, it is not just about slapping on a designation; it is about making sure we manage those protected areas properly. As he will know, our marine space faces enormous pressures. It has struck me, particularly since I have been the environment Minister, that everyone wants to get their hands on the marine space. There are a lot of challenges, but that is why it is important that we have our network of MPAs and a strong marine planning and licensing regime to prevent harmful activities. However, MPAs also need protection from other forms of activity that fall outside those regimes, such as certain types of fishing that might be harmful to them.

I want to touch on our inshore waters, which are up to 6 nautical miles from the coast. That is where we have full control of our MPAs. Over 90 of those are now protected from damaging fishing activities, thanks to the hard work of the Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities and the Marine Management Organisation, and to the use of byelaws that we have been able to put into operation in the inshore areas. The hon. Member touched on bottom towed fishing. In many of those areas, we have been able to permanently stop bottom towed fishing taking place. That is happening right now in Poole harbour, The Needles, Bembridge on the Isle of Wight, Lyme Bay—he rightly referred to the model project that has been put into operation there—and Torbay.

Through working very closely with the fishing industry and other stakeholders, it has been possible to develop individual, tailor-made schemes for certain areas. There are others around the coast that protect such things as reef features by having measures that relate to mobile fishing gear, and restricting dredging in some areas and the hand-harvesting of certain shellfish—for example, in seagrass beds. Lots of measures are being put in place so that we have more sustainable habitats and sustainable fishing at the same time.

The hon. Gentleman rightly says that there are opportunities in many of these areas, particularly in the carbon storage space—for example, carbon storage in kelp beds and in our mud. There are lots of opportunities and good reasons why we should put in place some of these measures.

In our offshore waters, which the hon. Gentleman touched on, the picture is very different. Introducing management measures for our offshore MPAs has been really hard to achieve because we had to get the agreement of all the EU member states. As you will probably realise, Dame Angela, that is pretty tricky. Now that we have left the common fisheries policy and introduced the Fisheries Act 2020, at long last we have the opportunity to bring in our own byelaws so that we can start to protect these areas properly. A great deal of work has been done really fast to try to use some of the new powers. As was mentioned, we have proposals for four of our most sensitive offshore sites—the Canyons, Dogger Bank, Inner Dowsing, Race Bank and North Ridge, and south Dorset. We set about consultations literally within days of getting the new powers, and the consultation runs until 28 March.

We are not going to stop there. We are also developing a whole programme to bring in required management for the remainder of the offshore areas in English waters, and we want to do that as fast as possible.

Although we have a proud record of MPAs, the Government are mindful that we could go further in the marine space, which is why we called for a review into the idea of highly protected marine areas. The subsequent Benyon review, which I am sure the hon. Member remembers, looked at whether we could create highly protected marine areas. The Government welcomed the report and are looking at the recommendations. Such areas would allow biodiversity to recover across a whole site. It is very much what the hon. Member touched on—a much wider, more holistic approach. A lot of work is going on with stakeholders to talk about those recommendations. The Secretary of State has announced that we intend to pilot some highly protected marine areas. It is very exciting, and we will hear more about it as time goes on.

I want to touch on large fishing vessels, which are often referred to as super trawlers. Lots of organisations are raising that issue, and I have had a lot of letters about them and their impact on MPAs. The Government are looking closely at what our policy for such vessels should be, but as ever it needs to be evidence based. Everything has to be based on science. Those vessels are usually what we call pelagic trawlers, which means that they fish in the water column. As such, they are not likely to come into contact with seabed habitats and species, which most of the MPAs were designated to protect, but we know that, for those highly mobile fish species, area-based protections such as MPAs might not be sufficient, and they are best protected by measures that apply across the full range. Certainly, looking at those vessels is on the radar.

I just wanted to say yet again that having left the common fisheries policy, and now that the transition period has ended, we have the opportunity to look at these large vessels coming into our waters offshore. I want to highlight, though, that we have already acted to ban pulse fishing in our waters, which the hon. Member referred to, and I am pleased that he welcomed that.

Our domestic MPA network has meant that the UK is in a strong position to be a global leader in protecting our seas. The hon. Member questioned what our role would be, and whether we would step up to the plate—whether we could, now that we have left the EU—but I definitely believe that we can play a much greater role on the international stage.

We are a very ambitious participant in what we are calling a marine super year—2021 is the marine super year—and we are continuing to push for strong multilateral action on ocean protection. As part of this, the UK is advocating the protection of at least 30% of the global ocean within marine protected areas by 2030, which aligns with global protection of at least 30% of land by the same year. We are championing the 30 by 30 target through our leadership of the Global Ocean Alliance, and as ocean co-chair of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People. I am delighted to announce that Bangladesh has recently joined the Global Ocean Alliance, which brings us to 41 countries and counting. Between the two alliances, 70 countries now support the 30 by 30 target, which I think the hon. Member will welcome, because he touched on some of these much wider issues.

The hon. Member also touched on this whole space of a more holistic, joined-up approach to everything that goes on in our seas, particularly fishing. It is our ambition to have world-class fisheries management that will achieve sustainable fisheries, safeguarding stocks, which is obviously crucial for the fishermen themselves, but also safeguarding the environment in the long term. The Government remain fully committed to sustainable fishing, and to the principle of maximum sustainable yields as set out in the 25-year environment plan and our fisheries White Paper. The objectives of the Fisheries Act 2020, the joint fisheries statement and the fisheries management plans collectively reaffirm our commitment to achieving sustainable fishing and protecting the environment, while tailoring our approach to our unique seas and the needs of our fishing industry. I want to give reassurance that I am working very closely with the Fisheries Minister on this, because while she is responsible for fishing and our fishermen, I am responsible for the environment, and we need to work together so that we have a sustainable future for everyone.

I have been very pleased to have the chance to talk about some of these issues, and I thank the hon. Member for Rochdale for, in his very measured and fair way, raising the points that he made. I think he will agree that we are thinking along the same lines, which is always good, even when speaking to the Opposition. I know this is something that he strongly believes in, and I hope I have demonstrated that we are doing a great deal for marine protection. Our marine does faces a lot of challenges, but we now have the structure in place and we are working very hard to make all these things line up so that we have a sustainable future around these coasts, and are also using our influence internationally for all concerned: wildlife, nature, and those earning their living from the sea.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.