Oceans cover around 70 per cent of the earth and support a huge variety of life. Including its Overseas Territories, the UK has jurisdiction over 6.8 million square kilometres of ocean, nearly 30 times the size of the UK itself, containing internationally significant marine biodiversity worth trillions of pounds to the UK economy according to a 2018 report by the Government Office for Science. As much as 40 per cent of the world’s oceans are heavily affected by human activities threatening the future of marine life and the three billion people whose livelihoods they support. Climate change, overfishing and pollution are the three greatest threats to the ocean. Added to this are new challenges from a growing demand for resources and emerging industries seeking to exploit the sea and the seabed.
The impacts of climate change have been detected at all levels of the food web causing species migration and local impacts such as coral bleaching. A two-degree temperature rise above pre-industrial levels will significantly harm biodiversity, fish stocks and destroy nearly all coral reefs in the world. The impacts on marine ecology risk being particularly pronounced. Species affected by climate change include krill and plankton, which if removed from the marine food chain, could lead to a one-third decline in the populations size of larger predators including polar bears, walruses, seals, sea lions, penguins and sea birds. Increased ocean temperatures are also likely to see large reductions in fisheries stocks. A rise of one degree Celsius in temperature will increase the prevalence of pathogens and parasites, resulting in at least a 20 per cent decline in populations of mussels, shrimp, squid and other marine mammals.
Urgent action is needed to meet the Paris Agreement on climate change to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. The Government must not delay in implementing the Committee on Climate Change’s advice on how to meet the ambitions of the Paris Agreement and set out its plans for this in the first half of 2019. This should include setting a net-zero emissions target by 2050 at the very latest.
We are treating our seas as a sewer. Most of the action required to protect the seas relies on action on land. More than 80 per cent of marine pollution is from land-based sources, reaching the ocean through waterways, sewers and drains. Excess nutrients from fertilisers, mismanaged waste and contaminants such as heavy metals, radioactive materials, pharmaceuticals, oils and untreated sewage all pollute the sea. Plastic makes up 70 per cent of all the litter in the ocean, and if no action is taken to reduce its input, then it is forecast to treble within the next ten years. Once in the environment plastic can entangle marine life and break down into microplastics, storing up long terms risks for the future.
The “out of sight, out of mind” or “sea blindness” attitude to the seas must be tackled. There is much more that the Government can be doing to prevent waste reaching the ocean, both domestically and by stopping exports of waste to countries with poor recycling infrastructure. Legally binding targets for water quality underpinned by clear milestones are needed to reduce chemical pollutants from land-based sources. The Government must show leadership on plastic and make progress to ban those plastics that are difficult or impossible to recycle, bring forward the 2042 target date to achieving zero avoidable plastic waste, provide a clear definition of ‘single use’ plastics and ‘avoidable’ plastics, expedite its proposed deposit return scheme and extended producer responsibility schemes.
In the future, ocean resources will be in greater demand from a growing global population and new technology will open it up to greater exploration and exploitation. Deep sea mining has the potential to provide a source of ‘critical’ metals for a future renewable economy. Given technological and regulatory development it is possible that exploitation could begin in the next decade. Deep sea mining would have catastrophic impacts on habitats and species on seafloor sites and there is little evidence that mitigation measures such as setting aside areas of the seabed will work to mitigate the damage. The Government must rule out its own exploitation of resources in unique ocean environments such as hydrothermal vents and use its influence internationally to impose a moratorium on exploitation licences in these environments. Outside of these areas, the Government should use its substantial experience in regulating marine industries to ensure Environmental Impact Assessments for exploitation licences are robust, based on the precautionary principle and use the best available scientific evidence.
The Government claims to have met its targets for marine conservation in UK waters. However the current approach is not working with too many harmful activities occurring across too wide an area. Fisheries are not adequately incorporated into marine planning and few Marine Protected Areas have management plans or ongoing monitoring in place. The Overseas Territories Blue Belt programme has bold ambitions to protect four million square kilometres of sea, yet not all protected areas that have been established are meeting international best practice guidelines. The goal should not only be to designate protected areas, but to ensure they are achieving their desired effect. Sustainable funding for the Blue Belt Programme post-2020 is needed to ensure these areas are adequately monitored, managed and enforced.
We welcome the development of the Government’s International Ocean Strategy, which presents the opportunity to tackle the many, and interlinked, threats that face the oceans. Ministers must ensure that this strategy is developed collaboratively with cross-Departmental support to break down the barriers to effective coordination identified by the Government Office for Science.
The UK has shown leadership internationally with its active involvement in protecting the Southern Ocean and its stated ambition to protect 30 per cent of the ocean globally by 2030. The recent failings of international negotiations on protecting the Weddell Sea highlight just how difficult it will be to achieve the multilateral consensus needed to achieve its ambitions. The UK should use the highest levels of Government, including the Foreign Secretary, to mobilise its diplomatic network and use its position as Chair of the Commonwealth to advocate for its targets for marine protection. The UN High Seas treaty presents a unique opportunity for global ocean protection. The Government should support a legally-binding ‘Paris Agreement for the Sea’ and the establishment of a new global oversight body for the oceans. This would deliver the gold standard of environmental principles that Ministers say is necessary for protection of the ocean.
Published: 17 January 2019