We have a chance now to protect the Antarctic – one of the world’s last great wildernesses. Britain can lead the way.

Earlier this month, more than 80 million people in China watched the BBC’s Blue Planet II – enough to slow down the entire country’s internet when it was streamed online. Around the world, people have been enthralled by the David Attenborough series which gives a peerless insight into life under the sea.

While viewers have been delighted and dazzled by dancing dolphins, blue sharks and green turtles, they’ve also been horrified to learn just how polluted and plundered our oceans are – and that we are to blame.

Put simply, we have been destroying them. For years, we have behaved as if the oceans are a bottomless trash can, filling them with unfathomable quantities of plastic and toxins. Some 12 million tons of plastic enter the ocean every year – the equivalent of a rubbish truck every minute.

It swirls around and forms giant floating plastic islands. One, in the Pacific, is larger than France. More than one million birds, and 100,000 mammals and turtles, die every year from eating and getting tangled in the mess we have left.
The damage we are doing is heartbreaking. But governments from Kenya to Morocco are finally getting serious about plastic waste.

The UK plastic-bag levy introduced by the Conservative Government has massively cut their use, and the Chancellor announced in the Budget that he wants us to become a world leader in tackling the scourge of plastic littering our oceans by taking on single-use plastics. It’s just a start, but it’s an important one.

But plastic is only one part of the problem. We are plundering fish from the oceans at a rate that nature simply cannot support. According to the UN, more than two-thirds of our global fisheries are either fished out, or are being fished beyond their capacity. Up to 90 per cent of all large fish have disappeared from the world’s oceans in the past half-century.

And it’s not surprising, given the tools we use to catch fish have grown beyond all common sense or balance. Today’s trawl nets, for example, can be as big as four football pitches, and collectively trap more than 1,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises every day.

It’s not just a biodiversity disaster. Roughly 200 million people depend directly on fishing for their livelihoods. If the industry collapses, the effects will be profound. We saw a glimpse of what that means off the coast of Somalia. There, the rise in piracy coincided perfectly with the collapse of their once-abundant fishery industry at the hands of giant international fleets.

But we’ve also seen that, given half a chance, nature can quickly recover. Where Marine Protected Areas have been introduced, they have worked.

Dotted around the world are 14 British Overseas Territories, such as Pitcairn in the South Pacific, home to descendants of survivors of the mutiny on the Bounty. As custodians of these territories and their surrounding waters, we have the fifth-largest marine estate in the world. That estate includes some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, with a breathtaking array of marine life.

Speaking at a parliamentary event few weeks ago, the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, declared that a quarter of the world’s penguins are British. He was right.

Back in 2014, I was part of a campaign calling on the Government to create the world’s biggest marine reserves by giving protection to the waters around our overseas territories. And that’s what we are doing.

This Government has already committed 1.5 million square miles of British waters to protection by 2020 – an area bigger than India. This amounted to the single biggest conservation measure by any government, ever. We should be proud of that.

If we strengthen and extend protections for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, Ascension Island, Saint Helena and Tristan da Cunha, the UK will be the only country in the world to have established giant, highly protected marine reserves in each of the Indian, Pacific, Atlantic and Southern oceans. Mr Johnson has made it clear that he intends to – and he will be cheered all the way by the millions of people who were entranced by Blue Planet II.But even if we do, the world’s governments will still be far shy of meeting the global commitment to protect ten per cent of our oceans by 2020. That’s why Britain’s leadership is so important. We have a giant opportunity in the next 12 months to demonstrate it again.

The Antarctic Ocean is one of the most extreme environments on Earth, but it supports seabed diversity on the same level as tropical reefs. It is the home not only of emperor penguins and the great whales, but countless lesser-known species such as the giant sea-spider and the ice dragonfish, which produces antifreeze in its blood.
And while the Antarctic may be the other end of the Earth, our Government will play a crucial role in the fate of this last wilderness

For in just under 12 months’ time, the UK, together with our overseas partners, will propose the creation of a vast Marine Protected Area in the Weddell Sea of about 700,000 square miles. With international agreement, this would protect an area of ocean 200 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. It would be the biggest protected area on the planet, and a game-changer for ocean conservation.

We have one of the most formidable diplomatic networks in the world and, in Boris Johnson, a Foreign Secretary who is excited by the role global Britain can play in world conservation.

We can be so proud of what we have achieved in the past seven years, but what we have done should be seen as a start, not the end.

We need now to build on what we have done and persuade our international friends to help us protect Antarctic waters and secure a future for our seas.

This article first appeared in the Daily Mail, 10 December 2017

On December 10th, 2017, posted in: Marine Protected Areas, Other Campaigns, Plastic Bags by