5. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs: A sustainable Welsh marine environment

– in the Senedd at 3:41 pm on 11 June 2024.

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Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:41, 11 June 2024

(Translated)

Item 5 this afternoon is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Climate Change and Rural Affairs on a sustainable Welsh marine environment. I call on the Cabinet Secretary, Huw Irranca-Davies. 

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour

(Translated)

Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. This Saturday was World Ocean Day, and I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on our ambitions for our seas. Our seas and coastline are an iconic part of Wales, doubling the size of our country. The marine environment isn’t something that’s just far away, out there, deep underwater, that we don’t have to consider. Sixty per cent of people in Wales call coastal communities home. And it underpins our livelihoods.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 3:42, 11 June 2024

From fishing and seafood businesses, to attracting tourists, to the huge, untapped potential of green jobs in offshore wind, people right across Wales rely on the marine environment every single day. Looking globally, oceans are key to climate regulation, protecting us from even faster climate change. They are the largest carbon sink on the planet, absorbing over a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions we cause as humans, and around 90 per cent of excess heat. And despite all this, our relationship with the marine environment is fraught.

Last month, the Copernicus Climate Change Service reported that the world's oceans have broken temperature records every single day over the past year. Let’s be perfectly clear: this is globally significant. It impacts marine life: fish and whales move in search of cooler water, that upsets the food chain and other species will be lost completely. And it impacts as well on our communities right here at home. Melting ice sheets leads to rising sea levels, which increases flood risks for our coastal areas. Almost 250,000 properties in Wales are at risk of flooding. That’s one in eight properties, in towns across Wales from Rhyl to Llanelli to Newport. And there are other impacts too. Because of coastal erosion, flooding and climate change, more than 260 coastal landfill sites across Wales are currently at risk of leaking. And that means waste from decades and decades ago leaking into the marine environment today, potentially.

All of this paints a very clear picture of why future generations—our children and their children—are relying on us to make the right decisions now. We need sustained and transformative action to tackle the climate and nature emergencies. And that means that managing our natural resources sustainably, including our seas, must be at the very heart of our decisions. It means supporting marine renewable energy to help us reach net zero, whilst also making our marine ecosystems more resilient. It means harnessing the energy and enthusiasm of people, of communities and organisations, to improve the world for the better around us. And it means ensuring that sustainable management is at the very core of our approach to fisheries, benefiting both the sector and the environment. And I will be making a separate statement on fisheries after recess, with the will of the Dirprwy Lywydd and Llywydd. 

A key part of our approach is guiding development to the right place. Our seas and our coastlines are increasingly crowded, and so we can optimise to protect and support the industries that are already established whilst also finding the space for future opportunities. That's why I’m commissioning an independent review of marine planning methods, so that we understand how we can go further with our marine planning system while building on the existing framework. And building on my predecessor’s work, we are working with NRW to ensure that marine consenting is an enabling process—it's focused on how to make things work to deliver for nature and climate too.

I'm exploring how we can do more to encourage marine nature projects that bring huge benefits to people and nature. Just look at the work that's been done by Project Seagrass, funded through the coastal capacity building fund. Their work engages the local community, it upskills young people, and it engages with three local schools and does training with two local youth groups. Look at how, through the nature networks fund, Bardsey bird and field observatory involves diverse communities directly in the future of the area's wildlife through engagement and through citizen science. We're going to keep this focus on marine resilience and ecosystem restoration, and we will set ambitious targets in our forthcoming Bill to protect these vital habitats for our future generations.

Our marine protected area network is crucial, with over 50 per cent of Welsh waters currently designated. We will work towards completing the network, and we’re working with NRW to help us understand the network’s condition and to identify priority actions. One of the major pressures on our marine ecosystems is marine litter. Lost or abandoned fishing gear makes up a significant part of the plastic pollution in our seas, but this is actually an area where we have a very positive story to tell as a nation. In fact, Wales has led the way through our scheme to recycle end-of-life fishing gear, which has collected 10 tonnes of gear over two years.

And the work we’re doing to support our seas and our oceans doesn’t stop there. We are working with stakeholders to finalise the Welsh sea bird conservation strategy, to support our internationally important sea bird species. Our sea birds have recently come under increasing pressure, not least through avian influenza outbreaks. And we will unlock the potential of blue carbon by supporting seagrass and salt marsh restoration, and through a new Wales blue carbon forum.

We will continue to work collaboratively, Dirprwy Lywydd. The Wales Coasts and Seas Partnership, CaSP, is a fantastic example of this, bringing together a wide range of stakeholders and doing essential work in ocean literacy to widen the understanding. And we will leverage blue investment to increase the scale and the pace of nature restoration projects. And that’s why I'm delighted today to announce that Welsh Government will be providing funding to the marine resilience and improvement of natural ecosystems, MARINE, Cymru fund. This funding will be key in enabling MARINE Cymru to become operational and to draw in sustainable investment. The fund, supported by NRW’s mapping of marine ecosystem recovery opportunities and priorities, will help us accelerate our efforts.

We know that people right across Wales feel a very deep connection to our coast, and many people, indeed, rely on our coasts and oceans every single day. Together we can and we must protect these special places for future generations too. Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative 3:48, 11 June 2024

First of all, I would like to thank the Minister for the statement—it has been a long time coming. It is something that I've raised in climate change committee and I've raised in the Senedd.

Welsh territorial seas cover some 32,000 square kilometers. That's much bigger than its territorial landmass. So, for me, I'm going to jump straight to the fact that you've also mentioned the new funding that you're putting forward. I know those organsiations who work in the Welsh marine environment will be wanting to bid for this. So, it would be good, Minister, if you could explain and maintain that it will be easy to access this funding for those wonderful people doing so much across Wales. 

Now, when considering that most of Wales is out at sea, it is disappointing that so little attention has been provided to the marine environment by the Welsh Labour Government. And I’ve even raised only recently that Lord Deben, the chairman of the Climate Change Committee himself, said the weaknesses that he could see in the marine sector in terms of the report.

So, it’s just great news, but I’m genuinely interested in working with you to see policy reform and more so, importantly, delivery. A hundred and thirteen million tonnes of carbon is stored in the top 10 cm of marine sediment in Wales. According to NRW, that represents almost 170 per cent of the carbon held by Welsh forests. Practices such as bottom trawling, dredging and the construction of offshore infrastructure can significantly disrupt these sediments, so we must ensure that the carbon release created by such activities is not only considered but combated. For example, there should be a study into the option of ceasing some bottom trawling. A square metre of seagrass captures triple the amount of the equivalent from a rainforest and 10 times the amount from grassland and hence why the 10 per cent of tree coverage has not been particularly welcomed by myself when the impact on our farmers—when we could be doing so much more with the marine sector. Salt marshes in estuaries with high suspended sediment loads in the water column, such as the Severn estuary, would sequester more than our forests. So, we should be doing more.

Now, we heard from Mark Drakeford MS last week that this Welsh Parliament should not be afraid of being trailblazers. So, I would want to see a summit of the best marine scientists in Wales, and we have some of the best ones—. One only has to go to Bangor University, and I’ll put on record the huge admiration and praise I have for Shelagh Malham, who is the deputy at the School of Ocean Sciences at Bangor; the work they do there is phenomenal. So, we want to actually capture that expertise and that knowledge that they have, even the UK Climate Change Committee called in 2022 for a road map to the inclusion of salt marsh and seagrass in the greenhouse gas inventory, and I’m going soon diving with the previous Minister to look at some of the wonderful seagrass projects that we have in Wales. 

Another example of where the marine environment is treated to disadvantage is planning. For land we have detailed local development plans. RSPB Cymru, the Marine Conservation Society and I have said time and time again we need the same across our—and I'm doing that, because the sea is just there. We need a national marine development plan, a structural, a proper plan that actually shows—. So, we need it to be different to the national marine plan. We actually need for it to be across the whole sector.

I thank Lesley Griffiths for her kind co-operation on tackling the illegal harvesting of razor clams in Llanfairfechan. However, the Welsh Government have been promising us a review into the health of this clam population for years, so it’s no good starting projects and protecting things without having the scientific answers when we do this. This unique marine area would be perfect for a PhD project for those studying at Bangor University, one of the largest university centres teaching marine sciences in the UK.

And this brings me to my final point. Having recently met with Professor Shelagh Malham, Bangor University, it became clear that the Welsh Government should really now be looking more at the work that this university and others are doing in the marine sector. For instance, during COVID, I didn’t realise that they were doing water testing sampling, and they do it for other kinds of viruses and diseases. However, funding restraints have meant that they’ve had to stop some of those projects—

Photo of David Rees David Rees Labour 3:54, 11 June 2024

You need to conclude now, Janet, please.

Photo of Janet Finch-Saunders Janet Finch-Saunders Conservative

Yes. So, I would just ask the Minister: he has promised to visit the School of Ocean Sciences in Bangor, and I’d be able to tell him so much more and show him so much more when we have that visit. But thank you, Minister. I think so early on in your brief, the fact that you’ve listened to us is really, really good indeed.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour

Thank you very much for that, and can I just echo your points? I know, coming off the climate change committee, where you’ve been a Member for some time there, I'm keen to carry on working with all Members here within the Senedd, and also with the committee as well, and with the ideas they bring forward. I guess the only constraint on us is the classic constraint within Government of resource and priorities. However, there is a lot we can do.

Just to pick up on that point you were making about universities, our university sector in terms of marine science is excellent. It's absolutely astonishing. Curiously, it's why one of my sons went to Bangor to study marine biology, and then went off to do his Master's down at Plymouth and so on. But he went there because he knew the excellence of that area and the people that were involved in applied research as well. It wasn't just theoretical stuff, it was, 'How do we make Wales a better place and do this on the ground?' So, you are right, one of the ways we can stretch our resources further is to work with our university sector, and we're very keen to do that.

You mentioned several areas. I'm not sure I can do them all justice without drawing the wrath of the Dirprwy Lywydd, who is already looking at me. But just let me touch on a few of the key areas. You mentioned the marine Cymru fund. We are glad that we're able to act on that, and we'll be providing funding to that enable it to become operational. What the intention is here is to draw in high-integrity sustainable investment—high integrity is crucial to this. So, we want to make this an exemplar of how partners working together can develop projects to achieve shared outcomes in the marine environment, and making the funds that are available go a lot further. So, that fund will seek to invest in programmes and projects that enable, maintain and enhance the resilience of our marine and coastal ecosystems for the long term, that facilitate a wider delivery of benefits to individuals, communities and businesses, and produce those seas that we all want, which are clean, healthy, safe and productive, and biologically diverse as well.

On the marine planning, as you know, and I appreciate you're constantly pushing at a different approach to marine planning that would replicate something like the terrestrial planning, but we don't start from a blank sheet here, and we don't start from the basis that we fortunately have with terrestrial planning. What we do have is many things in place already, and that's not just our Welsh national marine plan, but we've recently consulted on, for example, potential strategic resource areas, SRAs, for tidal stream energy. So, the SRAs aim to identify and safeguard those areas with potential to support future sustainable use by that sector, and we've had a great consultation on that. My thanks to everyone who fed in their views. We're going to be publishing a summary of responses in due course. That enables us to put another piece of the jigsaw in place. Subject to the outcome of that, we'll look to work with stakeholders to develop proposals for other strategic resource areas for other sectors, including, for example, floating offshore wind, and then, bit by bit, rather than try and invent a whole simulacrum of the terrestrial planning, we do bit by bit, and we actually develop that mapping of the seas there.

Dirprwy Lywydd, I can't cover everything, but I simply wanted to say my thanks for your support as well for what we're doing with salt marsh and seagrass and blue carbon. That has enormous potential, I have to say, if we get that right, and it does mean having a truly sustainable approach in which we have sustainable use of our marine resource so that we can enable fisheries, for example, or enable pipelines or whatever, whatever new technologies come along, but we do it in a way that doesn't damage those immense reserves of blue carbon that is locked up in our marine environment as well. Dirprwy Lywydd, I've probably gone on a bit too long, but, Janet, I know, will keep this conversation going.

Photo of Delyth Jewell Delyth Jewell Plaid Cymru 3:58, 11 June 2024

(Translated)

May I apologise at the outset? I was a couple of minutes late at the start of this debate, so I apologise to the Chamber, and I thank the Dirprwy Lywydd and the Cabinet Secretary for their patience on that.

There is an urgent need for a response to the state of our seas, of course. Recent research has painted a worrying picture: the world's oceans are facing the triple challenge of extreme warming, loss of oxygen and acidification. These extreme circumstances have deteriorated for decades, putting a strain on our marine life, and the ecosystems that depend on it. It's already been said, we're a maritime nation, and we must take notice. I do welcome what the Government is doing.

I would like to emphasise the gap in funding that exists for Wales when it comes to conservation. Current funding levels are inadequate. So, would the Cabinet Secretary be able to give us details about the action that will be taken to obtain more funding, yes, for protecting this in Wales, but also are there any specific plans at the British level to obtain more international funding to support what we are doing? Because, of course, our oceans are something that we share internationally.

Now, finding a balance between the need to protect nature and the need to reach net zero through offshore wind projects is vital. While offshore windfarms are a central part of our renewable energy strategy, they must be designed in ways that minimise the impact on marine ecosystems. As well as what has been said already—I don't want to repeat that—how are you ensuring that the projects are planned and created with environmental protections? And how will those be monitored? 

Of course, the potential for blue jobs is astounding. The environment offers opportunities in so many sectors, including fisheries, aquaculture and renewable energy. So, investing in jobs not only helps our economy, but our way of life. So, what strategies are in place to ensure that the creation of jobs in these sectors takes place, again in a sustainable way and in a way that benefits our communities? There is an intrinsic link, of course, between the health of our seas and the health of our planet. Again, in terms of international partners and facing up to these global challenges, how are we, as a Government in Wales, working internationally and helping global research to look at this?

Now, we've also seen mention made of the state of our water, because water companies are discharging sewage into our seas and rivers and ensuring that companies are held to account for this is so important. And, in terms of improving our environmental governance and ensuring that those who breach environmental law face severe punishment, do you agree that there is a risk that our politics could be polluted or put at risk by this?

And, coming to the end now, Dirprwy Lywydd, I promise, I would also like to emphasise the importance of the public’s input into all of this. I know that the Cabinet Secretary feels very strongly about this. Often, local communities are the first ones to notice changes in their environment, and they do play a crucial role, not only in terms of thinking that their role is to complain when they don't agree with something, but to have input to ensure that plans are things that they feel a part of. So, how do you want to ensure that the voices of those who will affected most are heard, and not just heard, but that action is taken on that? So, yes, there are a number of challenges, I'm aware of that, but I'll be looking forward to co-operating with you to respond to some of those challenges. Thank you.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:03, 11 June 2024

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Delyth. It's great to be taking part in this debate with somebody who has consistently been so passionate about the marine environment as well, and the sustainable and productive use of that marine environment and getting the balance right. 

Let me begin where you ended there, with local communities. It is something that I'm very fixed on, how we engage local communities in coastal areas in what is some massive potential within, for example, renewables and so on. And there are clear upsides to that, but we have to get it right, as well, to protect the marine environment, but also on those individual things that can be done. I spoke to a school here from a south Wales constituency earlier on today and you could see the passion that they had as young children about thinking not just about themselves, but also the children who come beyond them as well. So, there is something here about not doing things to people, but doing things with people and with those coastal communities, and that needs to be built in, I think, to everything we do. In fact, the Wales coasts and seas partnership that we have, the partnership that brings together fisheries, renewables, coastal communities, agencies all in one, is a classic example of how you bring all those voices around a table to discuss the way forward.

You mentioned monitoring. Monitoring needs to be built into everything we do, and some of the monitoring of the—. We already have an extensive amount of things that we measure and we monitor within the marine environment, but, actually, the potential that we have in bringing forward the environmental governance and biodiversity Bill also gives us more ability now to fill some of those gaps of things that we do not monitor, but we've got to pick the right things that we want to measure, fill those gaps in there and then make sure that we do monitor it. This is a dynamic environment as well. It's not as if we have a perfect science, because some of the things that we're—. I was saying that it's a very congested marine environment; it really is. Our coastal and marine environment is very congested; there are great demands upon it. So, we're going to have to learn as well as we go, take that precautionary approach, but, when we get into actually sustainably using the marine environment, we have to measure what it's doing, actually, and adjust as we go forward.

We do, indeed, do a lot already in terms of global research and leadership. We're looking forward to playing a prominent role. Sometimes, we don't shout loud enough, actually, about what we do in that field already. There are opportunities in the year ahead, where we're hoping to highlight some of the work that we are doing here in Wales already, including with things such as the seagrass restoration and so on, but also to learn from others as well. 

One final thing I wanted to mention here, because you talked about investment—. I think we recognise that we're never going to have—. It's a bit like health; we're never going to have enough to do everything that we want. But if we can put in place very high-integrity systems to bring in partners who are willing to fund, and some of those are going to be partners who are, actually, going to be benefiting from their investment within the marine environment—. That's why the marine fund Cymru investment that I've announced today on the way forward, looking at that high-integrity sustainable investment, is a good way forward. And this fund will—. Just to say that contributions to the fund will not be linked to the planning and consenting process in Wales. However, there are opportunities to learn from the investment: habitat restoration and evaluation of the benefits, processes to inform development of future policy—so, for example, in the net benefit for biodiversity or for things such as blue carbon investment as well. So, this is really innovative; it's really cutting edge. We're looking forward to seeing what partners want to step up to the mark and help us with that.

(Translated)

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Carolyn Thomas Carolyn Thomas Labour 4:07, 11 June 2024

Thank you for your statement today, Cabinet Secretary. I just want to say now that I'm a bit concerned regarding carbon capture and storage, storing it offshore in old gas caverns. I've got a report that I'd like to share with you, and I'll send it through to you.

The Marine Conservation Society have been campaigning for restrictions on the release of so-called forever chemicals. They're used in the manufacture of everyday products, ranging from greaseproof paper to raincoats. These chemicals are currently impossible to remove from the ocean, and they're such a large family of chemicals that it's really hard to regulate them in a chemical-by-chemical approach—it would just take too long. These chemicals have already been proven to have a negative impact on wildlife, including the immune systems of dolphins and otters. So, does the Cabinet Secretary have plans, through the new environment Bill, to introduce robust mechanisms that limit the use and release of forever chemicals and other pollutants into our Welsh oceans?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:08, 11 June 2024

Thank you very much indeed. There were two things that you raised there; one, carbon capture and storage. I was down only last week in Milford Haven talking to companies who are trying to evolve, as part of this transition that we often talk about, away from industries of previous decades and so on into industries that can, actually—. Some of them might well deploy carbon capture and storage. But they're very cognisant of the fact that, to do this, it has to be with the strictest of regulation around it and the strictest of controls around it. There is potential here, as part of the just transition, to actually invest in carbon capture and storage. But you're absolutely right in what you're saying: it needs to be done safely and correctly, and the scale we're talking about doing it on is way beyond what's done in a small test example, so we have to get it absolutely right. We'll work not only here within Wales but also with the UK Government as well, and I'll be working with other Cabinet Secretaries to make sure that we have our approach right here in Wales.

On the forever chemicals, I'm aware of this and I'm aware of the work that MCS and others have been doing on it. It doesn't translate automatically into the legislation that we're bringing forward, but I think there are other ways that we can actually look at dealing with this, because it is one of those fields that has been emerging in very recent years with the awareness of the impacts of these so-called forever chemicals not only in the marine environment, but actually wider in our environment, including within soil et cetera et cetera. So, I'm interested in—. I know that I'll be meeting with MCS periodically in my role; I'm sure they'll put this on the table. But if you want to share anything more with me—I think you mentioned that you had a paper on this—by all means send it to me, and I'll have a look. Thank you.

Photo of Paul Davies Paul Davies Conservative 4:10, 11 June 2024

Cabinet Secretary, as the puffin species champion, I'm pleased that you referred to the Welsh Government's sea bird conservation strategy in your statement. One essential aspect of the strategy should be robust island biosecurity, to ensure that our internationally important populations of breeding sea birds are protected from invasive non-native species, such as brown rats. Funding for the current biosecurity for Wales project comes to an end in March next year, and it's vital that this work can continue.

Now, the project plays a critical role in rapidly responding to incidents, such as the recent event on Skokholm island where a lifeboat was stuck on the rocks and started leaking fuel. As part of the response, the biosecurity for Wales team were deployed to search for any rats that may have stowed away on the vessel. Had any made their way onto the island, this could have led to devastating consequences for the nesting sea birds. So, Cabinet Secretary, I can't stress enough just how important this is, and it's crucial that the Welsh Government identifies funding and a delivery mechanism so that it can continue. Therefore, can you provide assurances today that the Welsh Government will continue to support the delivery of sea bird island biosecurity in Wales, and can you also provide some timescales on when we can expect to hear more detail about the level of funding that will be used to underpin the expected Welsh sea bird conservation strategy?

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:11, 11 June 2024

Thank you. On both points, on the Welsh sea bird conservation strategy, we are very committed to that, and I think the work we've done in that area already is showing its benefits, and, clearly, we'd want to continue that work. The work that's been done I've seen first-hand, I think, alongside you and other Members—. I've forgotten the name of the dog that actually was deployed recently on Skokholm island—was it Jaz? Oh, crikey, it'll come to me now. But that incredible dog that actually does the searching for rats and infestation. And I've been out there to Skokholm island as well to see him doing it in situ. Indeed, he was deployed in the recent incident as well. So, we're very aware of the importance of this in terms of our sea bird population. I can't give you an announcement today, on the floor of the Senedd here today, but we are acutely aware of the importance of that work, because we have some of the most precious—not simply puffins; puffins amongst them—of sea bird populations on many of our vulnerable island habitats. I can't give you the signal that you're looking for right here today on the floor, but we're very aware of the significance of this work, and the importance of it.

Photo of Joyce Watson Joyce Watson Labour 4:13, 11 June 2024

Diolch, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement. Over half the area of Wales is made up of the marine environment and is home to a huge variety of habitats and marine life. We are lucky enough to have important colonies of sea birds, like the puffins that have just been mentioned, but also Manx shearwaters off Skomer island, terns off Anglesey, bottlenose dolphins in Cardigan bay and grey seals around the coast of Pembrokeshire. So, the seas are vital to our health and economy, but they're facing unprecedented challenges, which include, but are not limited to, climate change, warming of the seas and having catastrophic consequences of overfishing, pollution, plus many other forms of invasive species.

But there is great work going on, with investment from Welsh Government, such as the restoration of seagrass—that's been mentioned—meadows in some coastal areas, like Llŷn, and in collaboration with Swansea university, and they are really hugely important to sustaining that local wildlife, and that collaboration is key in helping to restore the environment. But over half of Welsh waters do have some kind of legal protection. We have, I believe, 139 marine protected areas in Wales, and one marine conservation zone around Skomer. But despite this, many of our marine environments are not thriving and are in unfavourable conditions due to the multitude of reasons that I and others have outlined. So, sustainable management of these habitats is crucial in order to help them thrive.

So, Cabinet Secretary, I'm very keen to know what steps the Welsh Government are taking to improve the management of those marine protected areas, so that they can thrive for our future generations, and I'd welcome more detail on MARINE Cymru and the role that will play in drawing sustainable investment into a much needed area.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:15, 11 June 2024

Thank you very much indeed, Joyce. MARINE Cymru, indeed, because of the remit we're giving to it, could well play some potential within this area of habitat restoration and protection of our marine environment. But on the MPA network that you mentioned, quite rightly you say it's not simply the designations; it's the way we monitor and manage them effectively. The management of them is hugely important. But we do have an extensive MPA network and what we want to ensure is that these sites and the features within them remain in favourable condition, and indeed can improve as well. So, the MPA network management grant scheme offers competitive funding for proposals that can improve the understanding of a pressure, or is a direct intervention in that management site. Recently, Welsh Government has announced a new funding window for new proposals to be put forward to input into the 2024 MPA management action plan.

Just to refresh our memories here—because we'll have seen some of these projects over the last few years—last year alone, funding was allocated in 2023 to four significant projects being delivered by Welsh universities, which we've talked about already, and by non-governmental organisations as well, totalling over £100,000. These projects included research to develop climate change profiles for Welsh marine habitats, improving understanding of migratory fish in the Severn estuary—and I should declare an interest, as I believe I remain as the Atlantic salmon champion here within the Senedd—and the development of a surveillance plan for Grassholm island as well.

Just to add, finally, Natural Resources Wales are currently undertaking a process to update our MPA condition assessments, which will be fundamental to helping us understand the potential interventions that we need to improve our marine features. We look to complete this—if it's helpful to give an outline of the timetable—some time in 2025, but that work is ongoing. Thank you.

Photo of Joel James Joel James Conservative 4:17, 11 June 2024

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement today. I'm delighted that you have mentioned Project Seagrass because, as many Members might know, I'm the Senedd seagrass champion, and I'm very keen to make sure that the Welsh Government doesn't forget its commitment to seagrass restoration. As the Cabinet Secretary may already know, the biggest issues now facing the seagrass community are the onerous and time-consuming tasks of obtaining marine licensing certificates, the high fees that are associated with them, and the strict regulations that stop them from using vehicles on beaches during the harvesting and planting of seagrass. With this in mind, what steps are you taking to make seagrass planting exempt from marine licensing or to allow permitted organisations such as Project Seagrass and the WWF to obtain one single licence that covers the whole of Wales?

I would also be interested to know your thoughts on seaweed, specifically the development of a commercial seaweed farming industry in Wales, as this has great potential for us, but suffers from similar licensing issues. Thank you.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Labour 4:19, 11 June 2024

Thank you very much. We’d definitely be supportive of any measures to introduce a sustainable seaweed industry for food and other uses, because I understand that seaweed now is available for other uses as well, and to do that in a sustainable manner. One of our great successes in Wales, actually, is the work that we have done in the food and drink sector, and much of this is predicated upon some very local and novel innovations within our food sector. I was, only a fortnight ago, up at Halen Môn, off Ynys Môn, looking at the work that they’re doing, and they continue to grow as well.

On salt marsh, I don't have any proposals in front of me to exempt salt marsh restoration from the consenting process, but I'm keen to engage with our environmental NGOs and others who are currently working on this to see what barriers they do have going forward. But I am pleased that we've been able to award the funding to Project Seagrass through the nature networks fund. It is an important step towards our seagrass restoration in Wales, and I'm looking forward to seeing how that project progresses. And I'm sure that there is more potential as well, but I'm always keen to work with those organisations on the ground to see how we can take it further forward and what obstacles they are encountering.