In a move hailed by campaigners as a critical step for ocean conservation, Britain will call on global leaders at the United Nations to protect 30 per cent of the world’s oceans by 2030, a trebling of the current target.
At the UN General Assembly in New York this week, Environment Minister Thérèse Coffey will urge other countries to back Britain’s call to designate 30 per cent of the world’s oceans as Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2030 in a bid to reverse the damage being done by overfishing, plastic pollution and climate change.
“It is only by working with our counterparts internationally that we can truly bring about global change,” Coffey said in a statement on Monday. “I am delighted to be in New York this week to look at how we can build on the progress made on marine protection and protect the world’s oceans for future generations.”
Endurance swimmer and UN Environment Patron of Oceans Lewis Pugh said the British action was a “landmark decision” for ocean conservation.
“It took my breath away. If this is supported by other nations and followed through, it will be the most important moment for ocean conservation in history,” said the athlete, who recently swam the length of the English Channel to highlight the need for the global target for ocean protection to be trebled.
"The pain of my 49 days swim has quickly disappeared." said Pugh.
Erik Solheim, the head of UN Environment, also welcomed the British decision.
“The powerful call to scale up global marine protection, made by the United Kingdom today, should serve as a guiding light for Member States around the world. Marine protection should be the rule, not the exception,” he said.
“Particularly for the most vulnerable, high-traffic and resource-rich marine habitats, the time for effective management and action on our oceans and seas is now,” Solheim added.
The current target, agreed by parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity in 2010, is to protect at least 10 per cent of coastal and marine areas by 2020. That goal was incorporated into the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, with world leaders also committing to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution by 2025.
However, to date just over seven per cent of the oceans are formally protected. The conservation group WWF says that the vast majority of existing marine parks and reserves are either poorly managed or not looked after at all.
Pugh noted the need to ensure any new target was backed by strong rules governing activities within the MPAs.
“While we welcome this landmark decision, we need to focus not only on the number but the nature of the protection. Fully protected MPAs is what it takes for these oceans to fully recover. Without this a protected area is like a frame without a picture,” said Pugh, who played a pivotal role in creating the largest MPA in the world in the Ross Sea off Antarctica.
Oceans cover three-quarters of the Earth’s surface, and occupy 97 per cent the habitable space on the planet, meaning that healthy oceans are critical to all life on Earth. They have absorbed 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide produced by humans and over one billion people depend on seafood as their main source of animal protein. The market value of marine and coastal resources and industries is estimated at about 5 per cent of global gross domestic product.
Among the threats to our oceans, all of which are exacerbated by climate change, are industrial fishing and overfishing, coastal development, deep sea mining, toxic waste dumping, acidification and a toxic tide of plastic pollution that is killing birds and other wildlife.
Callum Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York, said MPAs would give people and wildlife more time to adapt to the rapid changes already taking place.
“Protecting more ocean boosts prospects for fisheries. If you stop fishing an area, the fish quickly become bigger and more abundant, producing many times more offspring. These eggs and young fish spill into fishing grounds and increase catches. This means that by fishing less, in time it is actually possible to catch more fish, at less expense from more prolific stocks.”
Britain’s Environment Secretary Michael Gove said ocean protection was a global challenge that required global action.
“The UK has already safeguarded vast swathes of precious marine habitats, but we must go further. Only by working together can we protect our shared home and ensure our marine life continues to be a source of awe and wonder for future generations,” he said on Monday.
Britain will also push for the 30 per cent target to be adopted at a meeting of the parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Egypt in November. Delegates there are expected to agree on the shape of negotiations to draw up a new Global Deal for Nature at the Convention on Biological Diversity in Beijing, China in 2020.
In June, Britain announced it planned to create 41 Marine Conservation Zones to safeguard almost 12,000 square kilometres in a major expansion of its so-called ‘Blue Belt’ of protection. No new damaging activities -- including dredging or significant coastal or offshore development -- would be allowed in these newly protected areas, the government said, while existing harmful activities would be minimised or stopped.
As well as underpinning the health and vitality of marine habitats, the government said the measure would protect rare or threatened marine habitats and species, such as the short snouted seahorse, stalked jellyfish and peacock’s tail seaweed.
MPAs already cover around 200,000 square miles of British coastal waters, while the government has pledged to safeguard over four million square kilometres across its overseas territories by 2020. It also plans to publish an international ocean strategy before the end of the year.
Britain has signed up to UN Environment’s Clean Seas campaign to tackle the excessive use of single-use plastics and turn the toxic tide of plastic pollution engulfing our oceans. In January this year a government ban on plastic microbeads officially went into effect.
Conservationists have long demanded more ambitious action to protect oceans, and more broadly biodiversity. In September two leading scientists joined Pugh’s call for at least 30 per cent of the Earth’s land and waters be protected by 2030, with this rising to 50 per cent in 2050. If this target was not met, they warned of the possibility of a “major extinction crisis”.
“Only 3.6 per cent of the oceans and 14.7 per cent of land are formally protected. Many of these protected areas are ‘paper parks’, meaning they are not effectively managed, and one-third of the terrestrial protected lands are under intense human pressure,”National Geographic Society Chief Scientist Dr. Jonathan Baillie and Dr. Ya-Ping Zhang, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, wrote in an editorial published in the journal Science.
A major challenge to achieving the ambitious 30 per cent target is deciding how to manage activities in the so-called high seas -- parts of the ocean that are outside state or national jurisdictions and that make up over 60 per cent of our oceans. These largely unprotected areas are particularly vulnerable to deep sea mining, over-fishing and prospecting for marine genetic resources.
This month, government representatives from 71 countries gathered in New York at the start of a two-year negotiating process that campaigners hope will result in an international legally binding agreement on the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity in the high seas.
“It is imperative that we act now to save our ocean from unsustainable activities and protect its unique ecosystems which we still know so little about,” said British Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan ahead of the UN General Assembly.
“This 30 per cent global target to improve ocean management and protection is both ambitious and achievable and we encourage our international partners to take action now.”