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Environmental Targets (Marine Protected Areas) Regulations 2022

Volume 827: debated on Tuesday 24 January 2023

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the Environmental Targets (Marine Protected Areas) Regulations 2022.

Relevant document: 25th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (special attention drawn to the instrument).

My Lords, I beg to move that the statutory instrument, which sets a target for the recovery of features in marine protected areas, be approved.

MPAs are one of the most important tools we have for protecting the wide range of precious and sensitive habitats and species in our waters. In England, we have established a comprehensive MPA network covering 40% of English waters. Establishing this network is an important step in achieving our goal of conserving our protected species and habitats. Now that they have been designated, we need to increase the protections for these valuable marine environments to help them recover, which is why we are setting this target.

The regulations create a legally binding target that requires at least 70% of protected features in MPAs to be in a favourable condition by 31 December 2042, with the remaining features to be in a recovering condition. This target will set, for the first time, a time-bound target for the recovery of protected features. Currently, only 44% of protected features in MPAs are assessed as being in a favourable condition.

Protected features include the different marine habitats and species, geological and geomorphological features and assemblages that are specified for protection within our MPAs. “Favourable condition” means that the features are in a good and healthy state and align with the conservation objectives of the relevant MPAs. We will assess “recovering condition” by checking whether damaging activities have been appropriately managed. This will identify exactly what rapid remedial action is required by regulators to ensure that our MPAs are being properly protected. Managing MPAs effectively and in line with their conservation objectives will secure the achievement of this target.

The purpose of this instrument is to set a time-bound target for protected features to reach a favourable condition and for the remaining features to be in a recovering condition. This instrument defines the relevant terminology, such as “favourable” and “recovering condition”. It sets a date for reporting the achievement of the target and lists all the features in MPAs subject to the target. It also sets a date by which the Secretary of State for Environment must report on whether the target is achieved and allows the Secretary of State to request advice from Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee relating to the target.

To achieve the target, the Marine Management Organisation and the Association of Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities are rolling out an ambitious programme to introduce necessary management measures in MPAs for the most damaging fishing activity, such as bottom trawling, by 2024. Fisheries by-laws have already been introduced in nearly 60% of England’s MPAs, challenging the criticism that MPAs are “paper parks”. By-laws are implemented following public consultation on a site-by-site basis. Once damaging activities have stopped, protected features will begin their recovery. For some of them this will be immediate, but some will take a very long time. Coral gardens, for example, can take decades to recover, which is why the 2042 date is appropriate.

In conclusion, the measures in these regulations are crucial for the improvement of our marine biodiversity. I hope noble Lords will support these measures and their objectives and approve these draft regulations. I beg to move.

My Lords, we welcome the target of 70% for the protection of marine protected areas by 2042. Given that the figure at the moment is 44%, 70% is a strong target. For us, the issue with this particular statutory instrument is the monitoring and how we will be clear that we are achieving these targets.

The original consultation said that protection would be monitored by additional reporting on the changes in individual feature conditions. That was then removed from the final targets that we have before us. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee asked about this and got a bit of a non-answer from the Minister as to why there was this change and the removal of the monitoring of the individual sites. However, I was very grateful that, at the Minister’s meeting with me and colleagues last week, the Bill team were very clear that individual monitoring had been removed because of cost. Ship-based monitoring is clearly a very costly matter. Therefore, the targets today will be monitored by checking the pressures and vulnerabilities of the marine protected areas in general, so there will not be on-ship monitoring.

That is a disappointment, first, because when the OEP last week reviewed how the Government have been doing on achieving their 25-year environment plan, there were a number of areas where the OEP could not assess the level of success because the monitoring was not strong enough. In this area, we are again at risk that the monitoring being set in place to see whether the targets will be met will not, because of the cost, be sufficient to see whether the laudable target will be met. The Minister will be aware of this concern. The EIP to be published at the end of the month is proposing to set interim targets for meeting all the environmental targets that are set. Can the Minister say whether there will be a review of whether the monitoring arrangements for marine protected areas will be sufficient to see whether the targets can be met? Targets without effective monitoring are frankly meaningless.

I apologise for being two minutes 34 seconds late. I was following the Whips’ Today’s Lists, which said 4.15 pm, so thank goodness I came early. Anyway, my apologies for being late.

Reading these targets, I believe that nobody in the Government understands the ocean. It is crucial to our well-being, and these targets are utterly insufficient. The report published last year by the APPG on the Ocean, which I recommend to the Minister and his colleagues, gave excellent advice. The chair of the APPG is a Conservative. It is a good report with masses of recommendations that the Government could take. I hope that the Minister has perhaps already read it and that his team have absorbed it—that would be wonderful—but, looking at these targets, I rather think they have not.

If this Government are going to refuse to stop or even slow down our use of fossil fuels, the ocean and the marine protected areas are crucial because, as we all know, they are a carbon sink that we cannot do without. It is always fine to talk about techno fixes, but let us face it: they do not yet exist. They are wonderful, and it will be great when they happen, but they are, at the moment, science fiction. All marine ecosystems are valuable. For example, seagrass is a wonderful gobbler-up of carbon, but we have depleted our areas of seagrass because of pollution and all sorts of other factors. However, our Link briefing points out that there is no central driver towards such marine habitats and there is insufficient monitoring. This goes against the joint fisheries statement and the marine spatial prioritisation programme, both of which talk about protecting and restoring habitats that store blue carbon. They include seagrasses, mangroves, salt marshes and even algae and macroalgae.

I thank Claire Evans of the National Oceanography Centre, who helpfully pointed out that there is a legislative target that is not being met. As a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, the UK failed to reach its target of restoring at least 15% of degraded ecosystems by 2020. It was adopted by the UK as part of target 2 of the EU’s biodiversity strategy, and the lack of progress is most pronounced in the marine and costal environment, where habitat degradation continues and restoration remains in its relative infancy. I recommend that the Government not only look at this report from the APPG for the Ocean but talk to the scientists, because they can probably direct the Government in the best way to do exactly what the Government say they want to do.

It has already been noted that marine protected areas provide a practical and significant contribution to the recovery and conservation of marine species and habitats. As has been pointed out, it is important to protect and conserve the marine environment and safeguard our natural heritage for future generations to enjoy.

When MPAs are designed as a network and supported by wider environment management measures, they promote the recovery and conservation of ecosystem structure and function. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee has published its thoughts on the Government’s various latest targets. It noted that it is

“not convinced by the Department’s explanation of the delay”.

Further, it expressed its

“regret that the original Explanatory Memoranda … did not mention or explain Defra’s failure to meet the deadline.”

It also pointed to an emerging pattern of delay from Defra, noting in paragraph 29 that

“the Environmental Principles Policy Statement, which was laid before Parliament for scrutiny in draft form in May 2021, still has not been laid in its final form.”

This pattern of delay was the subject of a Question asked by my noble friend Lady Hayman of Ullock on our first day back after the Christmas Recess.

The target for at least 70% of protected features in marine protected areas to be “in favourable condition” by 2042 is welcome. However, as has already been noted, the updated proposals for monitoring progress towards meeting this target fall short, focusing on contributors to favourable condition rather than on measuring favourable condition itself. Defra also needs to clarify how the target will align with the existing good environmental status targets set under the UK marine strategy.

Furthermore, marine policy documents, including the joint fisheries statement and the marine spatial prioritisation programme, frequently reference the need to protect and restore marine habitats that store carbon, known as blue carbon. However, there is no central driver towards this goal and no mechanism to measure progress towards it. A blue-carbon target would provide this central impetus, complementing the MPA target to build resilience against climate change and deliver ocean recovery.

The committee further notes that an overwhelming majority—91%—of consultation respondents called for “increased ambition” or an accelerated timescale for achieving the target, yet the headline target is unchanged since the consultation. Does the Minister believe that we could exceed 70% in practice, or is that the very best we can hope for?

Paragraph 10.2 of the Explanatory Memorandum says that the department has

“removed the reference to ‘additional reporting on changes in individual feature condition’ from the target that we consulted on”,

instead committing to publishing the percentage of features “in recovering condition.”

No rationale is offered for this. Can the Minister offer one or instead commit to writing to me with more detail?

Paragraph 10.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum notes that the target

“is predicated on implementing management measures to halt or manage damaging activities”.

When will the department bring forward more information about these measures? Will they feature in the upcoming environmental improvement plan, or will we have to wait for other documents? When might any other documents be made available? In theory, five-year interim targets will help us to move from the current 44% to the intended 70%, but what will happen if early reviews demonstrate that we are behind the intended pace?

Finally, can the Minister talk about what other resources or powers the department may have to ensure that the process stays on track?

I thank noble Lords for their contributions to today’s debate, and I will endeavour to respond to them. Our target for MPAs will transform our marine biodiversity; I absolutely know that to be true. For the first time, it sets a deadline for the recovery of protected features in MPAs. The target reinforces the statutory obligations of our regulators to manage our MPAs and, through it, we will continuously monitor our MPAs, ensuring that regulators intervene and manage pressures on behalf of our most precious species and habitats.

I will try to address the points as they have been raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, asked quite rightly about monitoring. We will assess our targets through the vulnerability assessment method, which is quality assured and a robust modality and uses a mix of evidence to predict the state of a feature. This is because direct ship-based surveys are prohibitively expensive, as was said in the Explanatory Memorandum. However, I have seen at first hand new technologies that allow us to assess in a much cheaper way the condition particularly of benthic environments. We expect there to be more ship-based surveys in future. Even some IFCAs have them, so there are means at hand to monitor and police what is going on in their areas. Progress towards achieving the target will form part of the annual review under the Act.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jones, said that no one in the Government understands oceans. She may be right that we do not understand exactly what is going on in the oceans, because none of us is a marine biologist, but I implemented the Marine and Coastal Access Act, which saw the rollout of marine protected areas—marine conservation zones, they were called. I was also involved in trying to increase the spatial measures that underpin our commitment globally. The one I am most proud about is blue-belt policy. My noble friend Lord Goldsmith once stood in front of an informed audience of 500 people and asked them to put their hands up if they had heard of blue belt. Only one person did, and that was his researcher. That is a problem of communication, because it is one of the most exciting environmental measures introduced in my lifetime. It has seen an area of sea larger than India protected around our overseas territories, and it is growing as we continue to roll it out, in areas where 94% of the marine biodiversity under our responsibility exists.

In my time on the Back Benches and then out of Parliament, I was asked by Michael Gove to write a report on the need or otherwise to introduce highly protected marine areas. I spent a year doing that, and sat at the feet of many people who really understand the oceans, such as Callum Roberts. We had fishermen, academics, people directly involved in exploiting the seas, and people directly involved in conserving them such as the Wildlife Trusts. I think I developed an understanding and a very clear recommendation that we should have highly protected marine areas, and I am now part of a Government who are rolling them out. That will be an important addition to our suite of marine protections.

I do not doubt the Minister’s intentions. I do not even doubt his expertise in this area, but the fact is that science moves on. You need constant updates about what is happening. That is where I feel that the Government might be missing out—that they are not having talks with marine scientists and biologists. This is behind the times; it is already old-fashioned.

The noble Baroness is absolutely right, which leads me on to my next point. I was not boasting, because I certainly do not know as much as some of the academics with whom I have worked over the years. However, since I wrote my report—it was published only 18 months ago—the understanding of blue carbon has moved on considerably. She will be pleased to know that a number of the marine protected areas that we have designated contain seagrass. In other areas such as maerl beds and kelp, there is enormous potential to lock up and sequester more blue carbon. She is right that our oceans have enormous potential to add to our abilities to achieve our net-zero ambitions. We need to weaponise the oceans to help us to achieve that.

I am absolutely certain that this Minister knows more about the oceans than I do, and I am grateful for his patience in allowing a new Member to intervene in a way that I understand might not be conventional, but I have a single question about the report of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee. Its report highlights the additional targets that did not appear in the Explanatory Memorandum. One target is to reduce by 50% the length of waters polluted by

“arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc from abandoned metal mines”.

I have a personal interest in this with regard to the Cornish coast-line where, as the Minister knows, there is consideration of new lithium mines and, perhaps because of rising commodity prices, bringing abandoned tin mines back into mining. How could emissions from new mines be baselined? Will they be included in these targets? That is obviously quite a big consideration for the people of Cornwall.

Absolutely. I welcome the noble Lord to these proceedings and thank him for his interest in these matters. We debated these targets yesterday on waterways, under the same provision in the Environment Act. One of the four areas in which we are setting ourselves testing targets is on waste from metal mines. Some of the pollutants going into our rivers and thereby into our seas come from mines that ceased production before 1900. Nevertheless, there is a serious problem and there are now means by which you can detect the point source of pollutants. We have set ourselves a taxing target to try to tackle this.

The noble Lord is absolutely right about new mining. As commodity prices change around the world, there is a likelihood that certain areas that were considered redundant from mining in the UK might suddenly become viable. He mentioned tin in the south-west. If a new mine is to be opened, a strict area of regulation requires it to prove to the Environment Agency in the main sense, but other agencies as well, that it is not adding to the problem and is not impeding our ability to hit our target for mines and metals. I hope that reassures him, but there will be many other opportunities to raise these concerns as we go forward.

I will just tackle one or two other issues. This is part of a commitment that we have made, both nationally and internationally, to protect 30% of our oceans by 2030. We seek to do that in a way that stands the test of international oversight, because these should not be paper parks. We have not rolled out management measures as fast as we should, because the EU had to allow us to do this in the past, when other countries in the EU might have had arrangements for their fishers to fish these waters. We are now in a position to move this forward, and the welcome news that we are preventing bottom trawling in areas such as Dogger Bank is just part of this.

I hope I avoid the need to write to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, but, if I fail to satisfy her, I am happy to do that. As she says, the management measures will be in place by 2024. These documents will be publicly available and they have to be clearly understood by all stakeholders.

We have great ambitions for marine energy as well as for other forms of marine activity including carbon capture and storage, which may yet be a few years away; but all this needs to be understood as we talk about the great spatial squeeze of our oceans. When you look at an ocean you think there are miles of it and plenty of room for everyone, but when you look at a map you see what is going on—which areas are favoured by fishermen, which areas will see the rollout of marine energy, which are covered in a cat’s cradle of cables that cross our ocean bed. We have to make sure that marine protection has its full place.

The most important thing I took away from doing my report was the marine environment’s ability to recover quickly. I talked rather depressingly about areas such as coral gardens—which explains our date of 2042—but other areas will recover very quickly. Highly protected marine areas around the world see an extraordinary abundance of biodiversity very quickly if protection is done in the right way. Of course, that needs the support of everyone concerned. In those areas that we saw around the world, their greatest supporters were the fishermen—because the biomass that spills out of them into neighbouring areas of the sea, which they can exploit, is immense if things are done correctly.

The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, talked about how the statutory deadline of 31 October 2022 for laying these target SIs was missed. In March 2022, the Government launched their consultation on targets relating to the Environment Act, determined to leave our environment in a better state than we found it. It included around 800 pages published following three years of developing the scientific and economic evidence. The consultation closed on 27 June. We received over 180,000 responses, which all needed to be analysed and carefully considered. The volume of material and the significant public response indicated that we would not be able to publish targets by 31 October last year as required. The Secretary of State reassured the other place and all interested parties that we would continue to work at pace to lay draft statutory instruments as soon as practicable. We are now at that point.

The noble Baroness also asked about good environmental status. The Government are already required to work towards good environmental status through our UK marine strategy. This is UK-wide, whereas the targets under the Environment Act are England-only. A UK-wide target makes much more sense for good environmental status given the dynamic nature of the marine environment. Regulators already have legal responsibilities to protect MPAs. The target to achieve a favourable condition by 2042 is based on halting damaging activities by 2024.

The final suite of targets is stretching. To deliver them will require a shared endeavour across the whole of government and all of society. We consider the evidence carefully. In some cases, it is not technically or practically possible to go further. In others, higher targets would involve significant restrictions and costs on businesses and people’s lives, which we do not think would be right to impose at this time. However, the Environment Act requires future Governments to report regularly on progress. If, as time progresses and technology evolves, there is evidence to show that we should be more ambitious, we can increase those ambitions.

MPAs are one of the most important tools we have for protecting the wide range of precious and sensitive habitats and species in our waters. The instrument will ensure that we greatly increase the number of protected features in a favourable condition. The MPA target will focus the efforts of our regulators to manage pressures, and sets a path for the recovery of the diverse habitats and species that live in our MPAs. I hope that I have addressed the issues raised and that the Committee will approve this instrument.

Motion agreed.