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World Oceans Day 2021

Plans announced to pilot greater protections for England’s waters – but do they go far enough?
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
World Oceans Day 2021

Today on World Ocean Day (08 June 2021), countries from all four corners of the world – from India to Guyana, South Korea to Austria – have pledged to support the ‘30by30’ commitment which is being championed by the UK-led Global Ocean Alliance and the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, co-chaired by the UK, Costa Rica and France.

This next milestone follows a successful meeting of the G7 Climate and Environment ministers, during which all members agreed to champion the global ‘30×30’ target to conserve or protect at least 30% of the world’s land and at least 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030, as well as committing to ‘30×30’ domestically.

Highly Protected Marine Areas

The UK has also launched plans to increase protections for England’s waters through a pilot scheme to designate marine sites in England as ‘Highly Protected Marine Areas’.

The selected sites would see a ban on all activities that could have a damaging effect on wildlife or marine habitats.

This follows the independent Benyon Review, commissioned in 2019, which recommended that Highly Protected Marine Areas would have an important role in helping the marine ecosystem recover.

As well as helping drive marine recovery, the review also highlighted other potential benefits of the sites, including increased tourism.

The sites to be piloted could be in or outside of existing Marine Protected Areas where they would benefit from a substantially higher level of protection. They will be identified by Natural England and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee with input from stakeholders with a formal consultation set to launch next year.

‘I am delighted that the Government has committed to implement Highly Protected Marine Areas with a number of pilot sites. Natural England’s evidence-based advice has been instrumental in determining the need for special protection for our most vulnerable marine wildlife.

‘We look forward to working closely with Defra to identify pilot sites and use this great opportunity to explore how highly protected areas can mitigate the impact of human activities on the ocean, support its recovery to a more natural state, and enhance vital marine ecosystems.’

Chair of Natural England

Oceans and mental health

The news comes as Defra and the Ocean Conservation Trust publish the results of the largest ever survey in England and Wales on public attitudes to our oceans.

The survey finds that 85% of people consider marine protection personally important to them. Of those who had visited our coastlines last year, 80% said it was good for their physical health and 84% said it was good for their mental health.

The findings also show that when asked about the greatest threats to the marine environment, participants were most concerned about pollution, with overfishing, climate change and loss of marine habitats also ranking highly.

Operation Ocean Witness

While greater marine protections have been welcomed, campaigners have warned that the government’s plans lack urgency.

Oceana has today revealed that bottom trawlers spent 68,000 hours fishing in UK protected areas set up specifically to protect the seabed in 2020.

As a result, Greenpeace UK has launched Operation Ocean Witness, a six-month operation that will document and expose the destructive fishing practices the UK government still permits in UK protected areas.

It will also document the beauty and biodiversity of the UK’s seas, and engage with fishing communities along the south coast to build a movement for a fairer, more sustainable future for the UK’s seas.

‘Highly Protected Marine Areas will be vital to transforming our existing broken network of marine protected areas, where all forms of destructive fishing are still allowed to take place. They can restore habitats, revive fish populations, breathe life into struggling coastal communities and help us tackle the climate emergency.

‘Today’s announcement is a small step in the right direction, but if our government truly wants to be a world leader on ocean protection, it must level up every offshore protected area around the country, with an urgency that reflects the climate and nature crisis facing us. There’s never been a better time to get this kind of protection done.’

Oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK

Destructive fishing practices

Destructive bottom trawlers and supertrawlers spend thousands of hours each year fishing in areas that are supposed to be protected.

Supertrawler fishing hours in protected areas have increased significantly every year since 2017. This is all legal, with there being almost no restrictions on industrial fishing in UK offshore protected areas, especially those which protect the seabed.

This is harming biodiversity, wrecking habitats and worsening the climate emergency by disturbing vast stores of carbon that would otherwise remain safely in the deep oceans.

It was revealed earlier this year that global emissions from bottom trawling are equivalent to the entire global aviation industry, while UK protected areas in offshore waters store an estimated 26.5 million tonnes of carbon.

‘Our government calls itself a global ocean champion while allowing destructive industrial fishing vessels to operate freely in our protected areas. We’ve heard enough rhetoric, which is why we’re launching Operation Ocean Witness. We will do our government’s job for them, holding the most destructive fishing vessels to account and making sure our government can’t hide the destruction taking place in our oceans, which so often remains beyond the horizon and out of sight for most of the public. 

‘Our government needs to deliver on its Brexit promise to level up ocean protection. A world-leading network of marine protected areas, where all bottom trawlers and supertrawlers are banned, would revive our seas and coastal communities, unify our divided nation and make Britain a genuine leader in marine protection.’

Oceans campaigner at Greenpeace UK

Match commitments with action

The UK government claimed that following Brexit, it would better protect the UK’s seas, with the prime minister saying that he would ban ‘hoover trawlers’ when speaking to Andrew Marr in January 2021.

This has not happened, and meanwhile the UK fishing industry has been brought to its knees by the fallout of Brexit.

‘Our analysis of 2020 data released today has found that there was a large increase in fishing with destructive bottom towed gear in UK Marine Protected Areas despite the pandemic. This activity contravenes wildlife law and needs to be banned from our protected areas, rather than licensing over a thousand UK and EU vessels to continue their damaging activities with impunity. International commitments are welcome, but must be matched by domestic action.’

Head of UK policy at Oceana in Europe

Greenpeace is calling for the government to get ocean protection done by banning bottom trawlers and supertrawlers from operating in all UK protected areas as a matter of urgency.

These bans could be enacted quickly and simply by restricting the licenses of these vessels to operate in UK waters, as provided for by the new Fisheries Bill 2020.

Operation Ocean Witness will operate out of Newhaven from June until Autumn 2021.

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