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What do we want from our seas in 25 years and beyond?

The phenomenon that is Brexit requires all of us to defend and implement what we have, whilst simultaneously thinking in big picture terms about the kind of future we want. It is undoubtedly a period of great potential risk and reward, with much at stake and much to play for.

January 2018

In this context, the birth of the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan for England (after what seemed like an eternal labour) was important. Not just that it was the first flagship environmental speech by a Prime Minister in many years, but that it set in print recent rhetoric of “leaving the world in a better place for future generations”, “protecting and enhancing”, being “global leaders” in conservation and so on. This is all very exciting and Link members have been waiting years to hear such things from governments of all stripes. It is, by its very title a “Plan to Improve the Environment”.

So what does this mean for our precious and degraded seas? Although generally fairly underwhelming, the chapter on healthy oceans in the plan did make explicit the Government’s commitment to continue and refresh the UK Marine Strategy, which sets out the common framework between all four UK nations to achieve healthy seas. Along with similar commitments in other parts of the UK, for example in Wales, the English 25 Year Environment Plan will help embed the Strategy and secure its long term future, which is welcome.

Put simply, the success and ambition of the 25 Year Environment Plan in our sea will depend on a Marine Strategy that has ecosystem recovery at its heart and sets ambitious common targets to deliver this restoration. Currently, however, the Strategy’s not up to the job: it largely aims to keep the status quo or even allows further decline. This was more acceptable back in 2012 when it was first developed, when issues such as food webs and underwater noise were relatively new. Things have moved on now and the Strategy has to reflect this.

Luckily, the UK as a whole has the opportunity to refresh these targets and set this new direction! This year, all four UK governments will collectively present a major progress report on whether its 2012 targets have been met. It will also set new definitions and targets in line with the 25 Year Environment Plan and other high level commitments, such as the Sustainable Development Goals. WCL members, together with our sister Links in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, are already engaging with this process so that:

  • The vision for UK waters (in redefining what “Good Environmental Status” means) reflects the seas we want rather than the seas we have.
  • New targets for safeguarding biodiversity and radically reducing human pressures such as pollution driven action to restore marine ecosystems.
  • The Strategy acts as the common framework between the UK and Devolved Administrations, encouraging the best possible implementation in each country.
  • The Strategy is much more visible as the UK’s main framework for action at sea, including presenting it in terms the public can understand.
  • Metrics for the 25 Year Environment Plan in English waters are integrated with monitoring programmes in other parts of the UK under the Marine Strategy, and coordinated across international borders.
  • The UK legal regulations that underpin the Strategy are safeguarded through the Brexit process and beyond.

Finally, in some ways, the most radical benefits to marine ecosystems would come if other parts of the Plan apply to our seas. If, for example, the concept of “net environmental gain” is promoted and embedded into marine planning, this would make a big difference to how areas are selected for human use, while if proposals for “Nature Recovery Networks” and landscape-scale restoration applied at sea, we could have some properly funded restoration projects for critical habitats like seagrasses or oyster beds that are rich in natural capital. Any new environmental watchdog must also have a legal duty in carrying out its activities to support the Marine Strategy and achieving and maintaining Good Environmental Status of our seas.

Alec Taylor is Marine Governance Programme Manager at WWF.

Follow Alec on Twitter @1TakeTaylor and WWF @WWF_UK.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership