The UK has one of the richest marine environments of any coastal state in Europe and, owing to its island nature, also has incredibly diverse coastlines.
Globally we are leading ocean policy. Our 25 Year Environment Plan is clear; we will be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we found it.
The ocean is vital to this ambition – as I’m sure you are all aware. It supplies almost half our oxygen and absorbs almost a third of the carbon dioxide we produce, plays a crucial role in regulating climate systems and provides precious biodiversity services.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated the urgency of the call for action in its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere.
Sea levels are rising at an accelerating rate; the ocean is warming; acidification is increasing; ice sheets and glaciers are losing mass.
The launch of the latest Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership report confirms that climate impacts in UK waters are varied and far-reaching. At the same time, we are losing biodiversity at an alarming rate.
The challenge is clear in the changing tide of our time.
That is why 2020 will be a “marine super year”.
The international community will gather in Portugal, in China, and of course in Glasgow for COP26 to shape ocean policy for the next decade. We should achieve agreement on safeguarding 30% of the global ocean by 2030, and on a new UN Treaty for conservation and sustainability in the “High Seas”.
As a backbencher I was proud to call for the UK’s ban on plastic microbeads in personal care products and cosmetics. The government subsequently issued a ban – a good step, though there is much further to go. I’m pleased the UK is foremost in tackling the scourge of plastic pollution and marine litter, hosting out first global conference in March.
This government’s £500m Blue Planet Fund further demonstrates our commitment, helping some of the world’s poorest communities to protect the ocean from plastic pollution, overfishing and habitat loss.
But our global voice is only credible if we match it with action at home. And there is a ground-swell of work underway in this regard.
Balancing the demands on our blue space is challenging.
We have delivered some improvements in environmental quality and now better understand the challenges ahead. However, we recognise that more is needed to attain Good Environmental Status.
Marine Protected Areas
The UK takes marine protection extremely seriously. Last year we expanded the UK’s Blue Belt by almost 12,000 square kilometres with a third tranche of Marine Conservation Zones. Our 355 Marine Protected Areas now cover 25% of UK waters, managing the impact of activity to improve resilience, enhance biodiversity and protect our vulnerable species and habitats – such as seahorses in seagrass meadows, cold-water coral reefs and deep water mud habitats.
Now we need to shift our focus to site management.
The management measures secured in 94 Marine Protected Areas represent good progress, protecting sensitive features from bottom towed fishing gear – I congratulate the inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities on their work.
New SPA designations
Today I am delighted to demonstrate this government’s commitment to protecting our marine area by confirming expansions to our Special Protection Areas. We will extend the Teesmouth site and create a new SPA in the Solent. The expansions will enhance our existing protections by covering seabird foraging areas used in breeding seasons.
At the same time, we are considering even greater protections for marine habitats.
Last June we commissioned an independent Review to explore whether and how Highly Protected Marine Areas could be introduced in our waters, an ambitious initiative which consolidates the UK’s status as a global leader and reinforces this government’s commitment to leaving nature in a better state than we inherited it.
I very much look forward to receiving the panel’s recommendations, and the Chair, Richard Benyon, will be telling you more about the Review later today.
MPAs have a vital role in managing the impact of activity alongside marine planning and licensing and fisheries regulations. But we know we need to do more, which is why this government is bringing forward new, world-leading legislation.
Leaving the EU is an opportunity to transform our fishing industry and introduce ambitious objectives for marine conservation in line with our 25 Year Environment Plan. For the first time in 40 years, the UK will decide how we manage and control our waters as an independent coastal state.
This government has already committed to seizing this opportunity in the Queen’s speech; we will be introducing ground-breaking legislation through the Environment Bill and Fisheries Bill.
The Environment Bill underpins our commitment to restoring the state of the environment, putting us on a sustainable trajectory for the future. It will establish a new, independent Office for Environmental Protection and environmental principles and legally binding targets.
Together, these measures will ensure the protection and improvement of the environment as we leave the EU. They will strengthen the provisions in the Fisheries and Agriculture Bills, and – above all – make us more accountable to future generations.
The Fisheries Bill sets our framework for a world-class fisheries management regime in the UK, ensuring we have a healthy marine environment alongside a profitable fishing industry – now and in the future.
We will determine quotas on the basis of scientific sustainability and develop new approaches to achieving the principle of Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) and ending the wasteful discarding of fish.
In fact, new provisions in the Fisheries Bill provide for management measures within offshore Marine Protected Areas and much needed conservation measures in our wider marine environment. The Marine Management Organisation and Devolved Administrations will enjoy new powers to manage fishing for conservation purposes.
However, our future policies will go beyond those laid out in the Bills.
Accidental bycatch in fisheries is one of the greatest threats faced by vulnerable marine species, including cetaceans, turtles and seabirds. We are working closely with our partners and stakeholders to understand and mitigate this threat, developing a UK cetacean bycatch initiative and a UK Plan of Action on Seabird Bycatch.
Elsewhere, climate change is having a direct effect on our precious coastline. We will better protect 170,000 homes on the coast before 2021, using £1.2 billion from our current £2.6bn six year capital investment programme – and our manifesto also committed significant investments to flood defences.
I saw the UK’s use of innovative technology first hand during a fascinating visit to Great Yarmouth last Friday, where ‘limpet dam’ technique is being engaged to repair and rebuild existing flood defences along the River Yare. This scheme has received over £30 million in government funding, protecting the town.
Managing coastal change is an ever changing landscape that involves much more than pouring concrete. Restoring saltmarsh, shingle and intertidal mud is a valuable tool for flood defence, whilst at the same time delivering ‘ecosystem services’ including biodiversity and carbon sequestration. Such natural solutions can be transformative, as exemplified by the £21m Steart project on the Severn Estuary, not a stone’s throw away from my own constituency.
The Environment Agency is updating its national strategy for flood and coastal erosion risk management and, later this year, The government will set out the action it is taking to better prepare the country for the future.
Effectively using our marine resources can provide economic benefits both to our coastal communities and the wider UK economy. In the next 18 months we will finalise our first complete set of marine plans for England.
We have already published Marine Plans for the East and the South. I am pleased that the Marine Management Organisation launched its public consultation on draft Marine Plans last Tuesday, covering the remaining England inshore and offshore regions. This process is helping achieve our 25 Year Environment Plan targets – I encourage you all to engage with the consultation. Marine development is central to this government’s ambition, so we will keep under review how our approach to marine planning might need to evolve to meet future challenges.
Our marine licensing process also supports sustainable marine development and we will continue to work with local authorities to encourage all of them to sign up to the Coastal Concordat by 2021 – ensuring that the process of applying for a licence is as smooth as possible.
Net Zero and Offshore Wind
Delivering on our ambitious climate goals requires action across all sectors. We urgently need to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases if we are to avoid further irreversible damage to our marine environment.
We were the first in the G20 to legislate for net zero emissions by 2050. We are phasing out coal-fired power stations by 2025 and our world-renowned offshore wind sector is set to produce one third of the UK’s electricity from 2030. Offshore renewable energy will need to be developed alongside protecting the marine environment and maximising co-benefits to ensure that efforts to combat climate change do not unintentionally harm marine biodiversity.
Announcement: Seabird Conservation Strategy
As you can see, this government is working on new legislation, Net Zero commitments and further marine protection; as demonstrated here today with our SPA expansions.
These are all ambitious objectives.
Today, to mark my commitment delivering our agenda and leaving the environment in a better state for future generations, I am delighted to announce that this year we will be developing and publishing a comprehensive Seabird Conservation Strategy for England.
While I have a personal soft spot for our iconic seabirds, particularly puffin and Manx Shearwater, our seabird population is of global importance. Around a quarter of Europe’s individual seabirds breed in UK colonies and during the breeding season the UK hosts over half the seabirds in the European Union; approximately 3.5 million pairs across 26 different species.
But many of those species have been declining.
Alongside our extensive network of Special Protection Areas, the new Seabird Conservation Strategy will help us understand the biggest impacts on our seabirds and how to protect them more effectively. I look forward to consulting later this year.
I hope all of this demonstrates the critical importance of our marine environment. It is challenging to strike the careful balance needed to protect marine biodiversity and also deliver the financial benefits of our marine economy. However, through our Marine Protected Areas Programme, our planning and licensing regimes and the UK Marine Strategy, I am confident that this government has the tools we need to ride this wave to achieve this.