Already, the Government has promised positive plans for international oceans: the blue belt of protected areas, the campaign for 30% of waters to be safeguarded by 2030, and reduction of plastic waste could all help save our sealife.
Closer to home, though, the future of our seas is in doubt.
Overfishing is dangerous for fish stocks and destructive for the wider marine environment. In combination with other industrial development in our offshore environment, the life of British coastlines is at risk. Government has failed to meet the required standard in eleven of the fifteen indicators of UK marine health and it is certain to miss the EU target that our waters should be in Good Environmental Status by 2020.
This week, the EU December Council for fisheries management set catch allowances for 2020. The EU target was for all fishing limits to be set at “maximum sustainable yield” – the level at which fish populations can replenish themselves and provide fishing opportunities. This is not an ambitious target for marine life, it is a bare minimum for sustaining profits from fish stocks. Our environment needs a much more comprehensive and bolder ecosystem approach; even before we ask how many fish we can catch, we should be confident that fish populations are abundant enough to support wider marine life and ecosystems. Unfortunately, despite a 50% cut in North Sea cod catch allowances, many stocks will still be fished above MSY. What’s more, compliance with catch limits and the rules like the “landing obligation” are not properly enforced, so the impact of fishing on the marine environment is multiplied.
When the UK becomes an Independent Coastal State after Brexit, the Government could replace EU rules for fishing and marine protection with more effective regulations and a more modern ecosystem ambitions. At the moment, however, the Fisheries Bill is the weakest of the DEFRA bills that will be reintroduced in Parliament in the days ahead. Its major flaws include a downgrading of the objective for MSY (owing to the fact that it is hard for a single state to achieve this alone) and a complete lack of regard for the wider marine environment.
The marine environment is also notionally covered by the Environment Bill, yet no specific provisions for marine protection or targets for our oceans are included in the Bill.
So, what can be done to make this a Blue Parliament?
Fisheries management needs to be integrated properly with marine protection and a positive agenda set for nature’s recovery in our seas.
This could be done in a variety of ways. Like many targets derived from international law, commitments to improve our seas are relatively flimsy in legal terms. When the Government misses its targets, there will be few practical or political implications. So, one option would be to set a clear Marine Recovery Target as part of a strengthened framework for target-setting in Clause 1 of the Environment Bill, with all the enhanced accountability, long-term planning and scrutiny that would entail.
A second option would be to use the Fisheries Bill to require the improvement of the ecological state of our seas alongside the need for more sustainable fisheries management. Closing the loopholes for MSY and setting a clear, time-bound goal for ecological recovery could finally bring together the stubbornly siloed realms of fisheries and sustainable seas.
A third approach – perhaps the simplest and most effective – would be to add an explicit marine requirement to a strengthened “significant environmental improvement” test for the targets framework in the Environment Bill. It would be a simple matter for Government to reintroduce the bill with a clause to state that the significant environmental improvement test for targets will only be met if it delivers recovery in the terrestrial and marine environment.
This year, Link members like WWF, MCS and Greenpeace will be leading campaigns for a policy shift from marine management to recovery. We will also be proposing solutions, such as Highly Protected Marine Areas – and Joan Edwards from the Wildlife Trusts is part of Richard Benyon’s important review of HPMAs. We will work with Greener UK and the Blue Marine Foundation to consider how best this agenda can be incorporated in domestic and international law.
Tackling the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss simply cannot be achieved if our efforts end at our coastlines. Over Christmas, DEFRA has an opportunity to fill the gap in its domestic environmental agenda by including a commitment to restoring our seas when its legislation returns the House.
For the sake of our seas, Government should put its majority to work for a Blue Parliament.
Richard Benwell, CEO, Wildlife and Countryside Link
The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.,
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