I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of strengthening the Marine Protected Area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. Those are words that I have not said for a long time in Westminster Hall, so it is a pleasure to be here. I am delighted to be joined by not only the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, my right hon. Friend Anne-Marie Trevelyan, but other colleagues from across the House, some of whom are themselves returning to Westminster Hall after a bit of an absence in Government.
I am delighted to open this important debate on an issue that, perhaps surprisingly, is close to my heart, mainly because of the penguin—I will come back to that in a moment. First, I want to talk about great British wildlife. If we are asked to think about it, what actually comes to mind? We might think of the barn owl, the red squirrel, or—rightly, I think—the humble hedgehog, or even the newly reintroduced Eurasian beaver. But I think first of all of the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary macaque climbing those fabled pillars of Hercules. I think of the critically endangered mountain chicken frog on the island of Montserrat. I think of the world’s smallest flightless bird, the Inaccessible Island rail. Inaccessible Island is just off Tristan da Cunha. Most importantly, I think of the great British penguin.
Why are all these things linked? It is because of the British overseas territories. Through our overseas territories, we are responsible for not only chicken frogs and Inaccessible Island rails; we are responsible for one third of the world’s penguins. That is a staggering statistic—but it is only one statistic, because it does not stop there. Over 90% of the UK’s biodiversity is found in the British overseas territories, which also hold over 94% of the UK’s endemic species. Sometimes there is an attitude that perhaps prevails that the overseas territories are just a few rocks with no real importance to the UK and only of interest from a financial services perspective. But that is not true: it is not true from a historical perspective, it is not true from a strategic perspective, and it is certainly not true from an environmental perspective.
Spread across five of the seven seas, and with environments ranging from tropical to polar, the overseas territories are invaluable to our nature conservation and restoration work. We can be very proud that, over the past decade, the Government have taken firm action to conserve these precious ecosystems. For a start, the Darwin Plus scheme has seen over £32 million of funding go to 162 environmental projects in the OTs, including 33 projects in South Georgia alone.
I want to talk about the Government’s other vital initiative with the overseas territories: the blue belt programme. Successive Conservative Governments have grown and strengthened this network of marine protected areas, working with 10 overseas territory Governments to do so. As a result, we have now protected over 4.3 million sq km of ocean. That is 1% of the world’s ocean—an area the size of India. According to the Government, the managing, monitoring and surveyance of the blue belts has come at a cost to taxpayers of only £10 per square kilometre of ocean.
One of these 10 overseas territories is the focus of our debate today—South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, a remote archipelago in the South Atlantic ocean, perhaps made famous in the minds of many of us by the events of 1982. It is said in this context to be more biodiverse than the fabled Galápagos islands immortalised by the journeys and travels of Charles Darwin. This uninhabited overseas territory first joined the blue belt programme back in 2013, with a commitment to review the marine protected area every five years. Having last been reviewed, and subsequently strengthened, back in 2018 after valiant campaigning by the then Back-Bench MPs, the noble Lords Benyon and Goldsmith, the time has come again for the Department and the SGSSI Government to decide whether to strengthen those marine protections further. It will come as no surprise that I believe we should.
South Georgia is a spectacular island. It is the size of Cornwall, and has over a dozen peaks that rise higher than Ben Nevis. Its wildlife is as spectacular as its geography. It is home to 3 million penguins of four different species; as I previously mentioned, one third of the world’s penguins are British and nearly half of them live in South Georgia. The island is also home to most of the world’s Antarctic fur seals, half of the world’s southern elephant seals and four species of albatross, which we know from Samuel Taylor Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” are the world’s largest flying birds. I resist the temptation to quote reams of that noble Romantic verse—many of us have studied English to a very high level.
I wanted to mark in passing that, although South Georgia is indeed the home of a vast quantity of penguins, fur seals and elephant seals, they are currently being very badly affected by avian flu. Officials are extremely concerned that the numbers will be severely depleted in the months to come.
My hon. Friend is right to issue an alert about the danger that those important populations face from pervasive infections such as avian flu and how quickly we can go from a situation of abundance to one of endangerment. That is why this debate is even more timely.
We must not forget the South Sandwich Islands. That chain of volcanic islands is also home to millions of penguins, including a colony of over 2 million on Zavodovski island alone—the largest penguin colony on earth. What albatross, seals and penguins share is the ocean: they are all reliant on the sea. The marine environment of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is what gives life to them, and when the ocean suffers from the impacts of climate change and over-exploitation, so do the islands.
The threat that I will focus on is the exploitation of krill populations. Human-led demand for krill is growing significantly. The Chinese industrial fishing fleet that operates in the region needs more krill to fuel the ever-growing demand for aquaculture. However, krill is also the vital first link of the food chain on which the penguins, whales and other charismatic creatures of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands depend. As this threat increases, so too does the need to protect more of the waters from it. The UK Government and the local SGSSI Government have recognised that, and they deserve praise for the work that they have done to protect the waters. The marine protected area around the territory currently fully protects over 283,000 sq km, which is 23% of the overseas territory’s exclusive economic zone. That is well enforced, at relatively low cost, by the local Government.
But as the risk from industrial fishing in these waters grows, so does the need to act to fully protect more of the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. With that in mind, this year’s review of the MPA creates an opportunity to put in place various new measures to protect ecosystems across the territory. In particular, I urge the Government to take the bold step of designating all 400,000 sq km of ocean around the South Sandwich Islands as a no-take zone. Unlike South Georgia, which has a scientific presence and is visited by tens of thousands of tourists every year on cruise ships, the South Sandwich Islands are virtually untouched by humanity. If there is any part of Britain’s global maritime estate that should be protected in this way, this is it.
I should stress that I am not calling for a full no-take zone in the waters around South Georgia. I am cognisant of the fact that fishing licences are a vital source of income for the SGSSI Government, and sustainable, limited and effectively managed fishing has a role to play in the future of South Georgia’s maritime zone. However, around the South Sandwich Islands, where only a small amount of fishing happens at present, we have to be bold.
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. and learned Friend twice, but I want to pick him up on one matter, which is his indication that the Chinese are mass fishing in those waters. They are not. He may not be aware of this, but there has been no commercial fishing of any kind in the waters around the South Sandwich Islands in the last 30 years. Two ships go there once a year; they take in 50 or 60 tonnes, and that is all. There is no fishing around the South Sandwich Islands because it is too far away, and therefore bringing in a no-catch zone of the kind that my right hon. and learned Friend describes would not achieve anything.
I am afraid that that is not the information that I have received. Even if my hon. Friend is right, there is nothing to be lost from confirming the reality that he asserts that there is little or no fishing or fishing take in that area.
I was going to go on to talk about the existing large no-take zones in both the Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn Islands MPAs, both of which have human populations. It would therefore make complete sense to have one around the SSIs. Together with additional targeted extensions to protections around key areas in South Georgia’s waters, that would bring substantial benefits to the territory.
Scientists have been clear on the risks to the marine environment in the region, and with krill stocks being damaged by climate change, we cannot afford for them to be also threatened by any industrial fishing. With last month’s worrying news about bird flu, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire, it is incumbent on us all to do everything we can to protect the avian life of the islands. That would start by protecting its food source. Thirty leading marine biologists and polar scientists have called for the Government to upgrade the MPA and I urge the Government to listen to that evidence-based argument.
Some may argue that the best way to strengthen the MPA is through the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, the multilateral body for the Antarctic region. However, the frankly meddling activities of Russia in the process make any positive action, whether environmental or otherwise, seemingly impossible, certainly for the foreseeable future. Thanks to unilateral action by our Government in 2018 at the last MPA review, a precedent has been set for the UK to act unilaterally to strengthen protections for the waters of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Given that SGSSI is our sovereign territory, we should be able to act to do what we see as best for protecting the biodiversity that it holds. We know that marine protected areas work. Scientists have recently seen some positive signs within the territory’s albatross and whale populations, which they link to the existing MPA. Ministers have a real opportunity this year to go further with those protections and give the territory’s endangered species the best chance of recovery.
Before I wrap up, and at the risk of being slightly tangential, I want to touch on one other overseas territory, which is the world’s largest marine reserve around the Chagos islands, with 640,000 sq km of protected ocean. I am not going to talk today about the strategic considerations the Government should make in their negotiations with Mauritius, but I ask that the Government allow Parliament to have proper time to discuss those matters. I want to stress the importance of the environmental considerations that the Government must bear in mind. The tropical environment of the British Indian Ocean Territory is very different from that of South Georgia but is of equal global importance. Having led for the United Kingdom in the International Court of Justice case against Mauritius, frankly, it is a mystery to me why we are negotiating with Mauritius in the first place. I view that judgment as advisory only and the sovereignty of the UK is inviolable. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations might be, we cannot let the environmental protections around the Chagos islands be compromised.
Coming back finally to South Georgia, if we were to visit Grytviken just 60 years ago, we would have stood among the carcases of whales as the bay was stained red with blood from industrial whaling. The transformation in the past few decades has been incredible. In the first half of the 20th century, 175,000 whales were killed, leading them to almost vanish from the area, but in recent years, sperm, humpback and, crucially, blue whales are returning in ever-increasing numbers to those waters. We have much, therefore, to be proud of.
It makes complete sense to me that we continue this vital work and create as safe an environment as possible for the millions of fish, birds and mammals who are dependent on the waters of this territory. It is time to show that the UK is not just a world leader but the world leader in Antarctic and sub-Antarctic conservation.
I congratulate Sir Robert Buckland, who is my colleague and the acting Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, on setting the scene incredibly well. It is hard not to be excited by the scene that he has set for us all to understand and encapsulate in our minds. The reason I am here is to support him.
The right hon. and learned Member’s theme has been protection and how we can do better. He outlined what we are doing across the world, and specifically what the United Kingdom is doing, with the necessity to do more perhaps.
Healthy marine ecosystems provide benefits for human wellbeing. It is estimated that our maritime activities contribute some £47 billion annually to the economy. Our maritime protected areas aim to achieve long-term nature conservation and protection, by alleviating pressure from human activities, whether domestically or internationally. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, it is important that we protect our marine conservation. I am pleased to add my support to the right hon. and learned Gentleman and the others who will speak with the same obligation and focus in their hearts.
The SGSSI is a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic ocean. It is a remote collection of islands, consisting of South Georgia and a smaller chain called the South Sandwich Islands. South Georgia is the biggest at 165 km long, and the largest island in the territory. With that of the others alongside, it is grossly and fantastically important. As James Gray referred to in his intervention, last month—October 2023—the highly pathogenic avian influenza was confirmed on Bird Island. When it comes to protection, that is something we should respond to.
I am sure the Minister will tell us, when the opportunity comes, what has been done to address that. In particular, the brown skua population in South Georgia has been impacted greatly. Since then, several other cases of symptomatic birds have been reported to the Government of South Georgia. In addition, a high level of mortality has been detected in the elephant seal pups at three sites around South Georgia, and animals have all displayed symptoms that are consistent with avian influenza.
There is an issue and we are keen to help and assist. When the Minister responds, perhaps she could give us her ideas on what our Government are doing to address the issue. Our overseas territories are an important part of our maritime systems, and are crucial to understanding the vastness of nature and wildlife. There is not one of us who does not watch the wildlife programmes on TV presented by David Attenborough and others, and who is not enthused when seeing the wonderful nature that we have. The right hon. and learned Gentleman outlined that in his own way, and it is important that we respond.
Healthy seas will help to regulate climate and reduce the negative impacts, including providing seafood and supporting people’s livelihoods as well as biodiversity. It has been revealed that one in three marine ecosystems in the UK have been degraded by human activities, including fishing, sewage, oil and gas disposal. There needs to be a joint approach and effort throughout the UK, to protect our ecosystems at home and further afield.
The Marine Act (Northern Ireland) 2013 requires the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs to establish a network of MPAs, together with the MPAs designated by other UK Administrations, to contribute to the conservation and improvement of the marine environment in the UK and the marine area. We are doing it here already, as a collective effort within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as ensuring that we protect our maritime ecosystems domestically. Doing so overseas is equally important; the right hon. and learned Gentleman set that scene admirably. Just because those places are geographically further away does not mean that we give them any less of our time, and this debate has come at the right time.
I am conscious that three hon. Members have yet to speak in the limited time for debate. To conclude, we all know it can take several years to generate and analyse data to form an assessment. The right hon. and learned Gentleman set out some of that data, information and evidence. In response to last month’s news about influenza in animals and birds in South Georgia and the surrounding islands, we can clearly do more, through our Minister and Government, to strengthen the MPAs. I hope that, as a collective nation, with compassion, interest and commitment, we can do so for our overseas territories, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman set the scene so admirably.
A word of warning: we will take the three Front Benchers at 5.10 pm, so if everyone’s speeches remain within six and a half minutes, everyone will get in comfortably.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this debate. I want to thank my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland, whose contribution was eloquent and erudite. He covered a significant amount of the ground that I had intended to cover.
I have to say that this is a real passion of mine. I served in Government, in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for over four years and, just recently, for a year as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. I have to mention the work that we have done. The launch of the blue belt was a clear Conservative achievement, the Darwin Plus funds have been going for some time, and there is the Blue Planet fund. Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend has already mentioned the fact that about 30% of the world’s penguins are formally British, which is not something that anyone would necessarily instinctively think.
I am very conscious that there are a number of political issues, and I also will respect collective responsibility—although officials will already be aware of my views on this matter. I think, of course, that it matters that we respect the Government of SGSSI. I am conscious of the difficult issues, but we also have to show leadership and think big. I am really pleased: I was going to ask the Minister when she expects the review to be complete—we had initially anticipated that it would be this year, but I think Dr Simon Brockington has only just been appointed. He is a former DEFRA civil servant who is excellent and who I think will really help with the review. Perhaps the Minister can indicate what she thinks the latest expectation for completion is.
I am very aware of the political issues and some of the issues around CCAMLR. We share one ocean, right around the world, but when it comes to thinking big, we should consider whether this could become part of the very first BBNJ—biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction —treaty. Lord Ahmad signed the treaty on behalf of the UK Government at the UN General Assembly—I was there for that—and I know that my brilliant former departmental officials have been working closely with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which has its expertise. I can assure the House that our brilliant officials are truly amazing at trying to secure these sorts of agreements. This is something on which we should think big, and it would be a great announcement for our Prime Minister, in collaboration with the Government of SGSSI.
At the very start, before I get into some of the substance, I would also like to thank my special advisers from my time in DEFRA: Ed Winfield, Meg Trethewey and Alex Kay. They all had a passion for the penguins, and they were desperate for me to go to SGSSI. That did not happen—it is a very long way away, which is one reason why it is so special—but I want to thank them for all the work they have done to support the environment.
This cause transcends boundaries and resonates with the very essence of our planet’s health. The urgent need to strengthen the marine protected area around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is self-evident, but I am conscious of some of the diplomatic challenges. This area, which is nestled in the southern reaches of the Atlantic ocean, is a remote and stunning corner of the world—in fact, it is featured in this month’s edition of National Geographic—but it is also a crucial ecosystem that demands immediate attention, care and protection. As we have already started delving into the complexities of ocean conservation, we are faced with the daunting reality of declining biodiversity, overfishing and the imminent threat of climate change. Climate change, of course, is already impacting oceans, and we are now seeing ocean acidification. That has a real impact on krill, which is the foundation of our food chain.
This invaluable marine ecosystem is not, however, shielded from the growing threats that afflict our oceans worldwide. I have already mentioned rising temperatures in the ocean, unregulated fishing practices and habitat degradation, all of which pose severe challenges to the delicate balance of life. The time has come for decisive action, and a commitment to safeguarding these waters for generations to come would be a very strong commitment indeed. This would not merely be an act of preservation; it would be an investment in the future and a pledge to protect biodiversity and ensure the resilience of our oceans.
Expanding on the currently protected areas and implementing these regulations will offer a sanctuary for marine species to thrive in. It will serve as a haven for breeding populations of penguins, seals and albatrosses, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon has said. Indeed, a well-managed MPA can act as a natural laboratory, providing scientists with valuable insights into marine ecosystems and their responses to environmental changes. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon that this is not about getting into the subject of no-take zones—I am not here to please some of the organisations that are desperate to have no-take everywhere. This is a shared resource, but I know that if we do not act, the environment and biodiversity will be challenged.
This is important for several reasons. We have talked about the different sorts of marine life—penguins, seals, whales—and enhancing that MPA would help to maintain the region’s biodiversity. A well-managed MPA can serve as a refuge for marine species and ecosystems, aiding their adaptation to the effects of climate change. The overall health and functionality of the ecosystem can benefit fisheries outside the MPA by supporting healthy populations of fish and other marine species. Strengthening the MPA can provide valuable opportunities for scientific research—not the kind that, dare I say it, the Norwegians and the Japanese do on whales, but that genuinely allows scientists to study the effects of conservation measures, monitor ecosystem changes and better understand the marine environment. There is also the opportunity for sustainable tourism and economic benefits.
But I turn to krill. Krill is probably one of the least understood things in Parliament and perhaps in the wider world. It plays a crucial role in marine ecosystems and is often considered a keystone species, meaning that it holds a significant and unique ecological importance. It is the foundation of the food web and a vital source of food for many marine animals, and its abundance supports entire ecosystems and sustains populations. Through its feeding habits, krill contributes to nutrient cycling in the ocean by consuming phytoplankton and converting it into a form that is consumed by larger predators. Indeed, krill also plays a role in carbon sequestration.
The challenges facing our oceans are immense, but the resolve to address them can be greater. Strengthening the MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is of absolute importance. We need to stand united in our commitment to protect this remote yet invaluable ecosystem that will safeguard the very lifeblood of our planet.
It is an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland for the opportunity to speak, and I thank him for securing this debate.
The future marine protection of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has been a long-standing campaign for the APPG and our associate members, including the Pew Trusts, and featured in our recent “Keeping 1.5 alive” report, which sets out nine priorities for the forthcoming COP28 summit, which begins next week.
The UK Government count all SGSSI waters—over 1 million sq km—as a marine protected area. However, only 23% of the SGSSI waters are currently off limits to commercial extraction. In the remaining waters, industrialised krill fishing is legal, which undermines protections according to international standards. The SGSSI Government will be reviewing the MPA with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office at the end of 2023, meaning that there is one chance, ahead of the next general election, to significantly increase the protection of marine species found on the islands. To demonstrate its protection of overseas territories, the UK must use that review as an opportunity to enhance the environmental protection of SGSSI.
In my view, there are three major changes relating to the Antarctic and the Southern ocean that should be taken into account when reviewing whether to enhance protection of this biologically unique UK overseas territory, the first of which is climate change. Climate change is increasingly being recognised as a major ecological threat. Today, we are seeing projections that we are heading towards global temperatures beyond 1.5°, the safeguard agreed in Paris. We will potentially pass that guardrail in the next decade, and the Antarctic will be no exception. In the past year, we have seen the lowest sea ice extent ever recorded, major failures of Emperor penguin breeding and impacts on Antarctic fur seals breeding on South Georgia, linked to variable food resources. Business as usual may not be an option, as we learn to manage the consequences of our past actions. Management will not be easy; it will require tough decisions. Humans, above all, rely on ecosystem support—I understand this. Therefore, we need to fully protect functioning ecosystems across the planet, including within the world’s oceans.
The second change concerns the great whales. Baleen whales are finally beginning to return in greater numbers to their feeding grounds in the Southern ocean. Approximately 1.5 million whales were killed in the 20th century: 90% of all catches were taken by just four nations, which sadly include the UK. A crucible for southern whaling was South Georgia. So far, the humpback whale is the species recovering the best. The stock that breeds off Brazil and migrates to feeding grounds around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is now close to a full recovery, which is a fantastic example of what is possible. However, fin whales are only beginning to show early signs of recovery, while blue whales are still depleted.
All those animals depend on dense aggregations of krill. Preserving adequate krill for the natural ecosystem rather than for commercial fisheries must be a priority. Recent estimates suggest that there is insufficient krill in the Southern ocean to support the historical populations of baleen whales, from before they were hunted to near extinction.
The third important change is—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned —politicisation in CCAMLR, which is the multilateral management authority responsible for overseeing krill fisheries. There are major disputes about the development of marine protected areas, how best to manage them in the context of climate change and how the UK should be able to manage its own waters surrounding South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
A perfect storm of uncertainty is ahead. The Southern ocean marine ecosystem is changing both physically and biologically, yet the organisation that is meant to manage it is unable to do so. The UK is already a leading proponent of 30 by 30, a worldwide initiative for Governments to designate 30% of the Earth’s land, ocean and sea as protected areas by 2030. Where better to set an example than at South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands? They are the breeding location of almost 15% of all penguins worldwide, with the largest penguin colony in the world on the South Sandwich Islands, where there are more than a million chinstrap penguins. The islands and surrounding waters are also home to the last 6,000 South Georgia pipits and 95% of the global population of Antarctic fur seals.
There is a unique opportunity for the UK to increase protection in the waters surrounding these islands. Given the UK’s past involvement in whaling, it has a particular responsibility to implement appropriately scaled protection measures. Increasing the level of full protection through legal measures should now be a priority for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands MPA review.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, and next-door neighbour, Sir Robert Buckland for calling this extremely important debate. It is a very important moment in the consideration of these matters as they are being considered by the Foreign Office and by DEFRA. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey on her four magnificent years in DEFRA. It has been a superb operation. We are sorry she is no longer there, but we are glad to see how active she has been on the Back Benches in the week or so since she was—dethroned, I nearly said.
My right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore made some extremely important points from a position of great knowledge. I will just pick him up slightly on one point: all those things he described and on which we violently agree—about the vital importance of preserving biodiversity in both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands—are largely unconnected, with a question of a no-take zone around the South Sandwich Islands. The two things are not necessarily cause and effect,
I would like to declare an interest. I had the good fortune to visit South Georgia as a guest of the commissioner about four or five years ago, after which we had a debate in Westminster Hall on
I think we were in danger of violently agreeing. No one would disagree that biodiversity is supremely important as are these creatures—including penguins, which I have had the very good fortune to mix with four or five years ago, magnificent elephant seals and the fur seals. It is superb—a heaven on Earth. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon was virtually poetic in describing it. He is absolutely right in his description—it is the most superb and wonderful place in the world.
I therefore strongly support the notion of the establishment of marine protect areas across the whole of the Southern ocean. There are two so far that are acknowledged by CCAMLR: one on the South Orkney Islands, and the other at Ross sea. Both were established under CCAMLR some years ago. CCAMLR is currently considering two or three others—east Antarctica, the Weddell sea and the Antarctic peninsula. We would like to see MPAs established there, but as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon correctly said, political influences in CCAMLR are making that impossible. The Russians and the Chinese in particular will not allow MPAs to be established around Antarctica. We think that is a great shame, and that they should be, but they are not.
By contrast, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have an extremely active and very well-monitored MPA, and has done for now for some 10 or so years. Fishing around the South Sandwich Islands is very carefully monitored by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As I mentioned to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon a moment ago, there is very little fishing. Two vessels go there for one month a year and catch between 50 and 60 tonnes of krill. I think I am right in saying that the valuable Patagonian toothfish are not caught at all, or only in very small quantities. The waters around South Georgia are carefully monitored by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. They have a very good, sustainable MPA that allows us to catch fish, thereby supporting local communities, particularly in the Falklands, and at the same time preserve these wonderful wild creatures.
I can understand why from a PR standpoint it sounds good to say, “Let’s ban all fishing! Isn’t that great? Aren’t we great? Britain is leading the world in banning all fishing.” There are two problems with that. The first is that there is no fishing there anyhow. Banning something that does not exist does not have any great moral standing. The only boats that fish in the South Sandwich Islands every year are two scientific vessels that look into the krill around there. They pick out 50 or 60 tonnes purely for scientific reasons, and that is entirely licensed by the Falkland Islands. Bringing in a no-take zone would not prevent any fishing that happens there at the moment. I do not believe there are illegal fisheries there at the moment, but if the Chinese or Russians were fishing there, they would still do so even if there were an MPA recognised by the world. Someone cannot be stopped from breaking the law simply by our changing the designation of the waters.
If we were to turn the very well-managed SGSSI MPA into a no-take zone, it would have two very significant consequences that we should be very careful about. First, we would no longer control the waters. At the moment, they are controlled by the Falkland Islands and SGSSI. Therefore, they are effectively British waters. If we were not licensing the very small number of vessels that do go there, we would no longer control those waters. They would become part of CCAMLR and would be subject to the Russians, Chinese and, in particular the Argentinians, who are members of CCAMLR. It might well be that the scientific research vessels that are allowed to go there very occasionally would suddenly become Argentinian vessels or Russian vessels or Chinese vessels. We do not know what the consequences would be, so there is quite a big geopolitical problem that would come with that.
Under CCAMLR, the South Sandwich Islands have some 15% of the allowable krill. If we were to say, “No, there must be no krill fished off the South Sandwich Islands”—none is fished, but we are none the less allowed to catch 15%—that would mean that the 85% that is around Antarctica would become 100%. In other words, we would be taking more krill from the Southern ocean by banning it from SGSSI. The consequence of our bringing in this ban would not be saving krill but catching more of it. We would be increasing the catch by 15%. To those environmentalists who are very concerned about the krill—quite right too, they should be—I would simply say that if we bring in a no-take zone around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, we will increase the Russian and Chinese take by some 15% and will further damage the krill population.
We must be very careful about how we approach these things. Of course, we are all determined to find a way of preserving the environment and the very delicate biodiversity—the superb biodiversity—that exists down there, but the relatively easy “Let’s ban everything” line, which I am afraid my right hon. Friends have all rather easily adopted, ignores some of the very significant geopolitical difficulties that would arise from that. In particular, the long-term battle between the Falklands and the Argentine would rear its ugly head again, because Argentina would say that it has a right to fish those waters.
I am so sorry, I have run out of time. We must therefore be extremely careful what we wish for. The consequences may well be worse than what is happening at the moment.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank Sir Robert Buckland for bringing this debate to the Chamber. When I looked at South Swindon, I did not consider it to be a coastal community—in fact, I am sure it is not—but the right hon. and learned Member could well have been from a coastal community, such was his understanding, commitment and enthusiasm for the topic.
It is a real relief to hear some good news about climate change with the recovery of the ecosystem in South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. A once-exploited whaling hub has now been transformed into what might be called a wildlife haven, as one of the world’s largest marine protected areas. Densities of fish—and, as we heard earlier, krill—are back in the food chain, leading to a resurgence in numbers of whales and penguins in the area, especially the king penguins that feed off the fish. Maybe we could have renamed them the Great British penguin—I almost feel that Boris Johnson is back with us—but never mind, we will move on.
This is a good news story, because the local government took action to protect some of the most fertile seas on Earth by enforcing tight fishing quotas and forbidding oil and gas exploration. This MPA is now going through its second five-year review, in consultation with experts and stakeholders, to ensure that the evidence-based management plans are working to their full capacity, and to assess new dangers and opportunities to make further progress.
It is this kind of local stewardship in rebuilding and supporting a once vibrant ecosystem that is key to the success of the area’s recovery. I will give a few examples of impressive stewardship programmes in Scotland, led by local communities and those who are heavily invested in their coastal waters and lochs. The Restoration Forth project in my constituency is a superb example. It is a partnership between local community groups managed by the WWF, with Project Seagrass, academics such as Dr Richard Lilley, and other organisations and charities working together to restore vital seagrass meadows and oyster beds in the firth of Forth—once an area rich in marine diversity, but one that has been sadly depleted over a long period of time. In fact, I was delighted to don some wellies and warm clothing one Thursday morning earlier this year, to be part of the project’s seagrass planting session. I was even more pleased to hear that recently, the roots have taken hold and the first seagrass meadow has been re-established in the firth of Forth. That is excellent news.
In a recent important paper, Alan Munro from the Coastal Communities Network and Fauna and Flora International spent some time examining a shared vision for marine restoration in Scotland. He highlighted the fact that Scotland’s inshore seas supported vast seagrass meadows in days gone by, but those habitats have now disappeared due to pollution, bottom-contact fishing and coastal development. He pointed out that the restoration of those habitats has enormous potential to deliver valuable services for humans, including protecting our coasts from flooding and erosion, improving water quality, fisheries production, and capturing and storing carbon for climate mitigation and adaptation. Alan’s paper examines how best to scale up successful community-led initiatives in marine restoration. We could bring success to Scottish waters if we keep the same energy and commitment shown by these amazing groups around our coast.
It is this kind of shared vision—community-led, bottom-up and in consultation with a wide range of experts and stakeholders—that leads to success in restoring our vital marine habitats. We can see it in faraway overseas territories such as South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands with their incredible and unique marine ecosystems, and we can see it led by those living next to our beautiful waters in Scotland. However, in finding the solutions, we need to talk to our fishing communities and those who make their living from energy production off our coasts. It is not beyond the wit of people in this country to arrive at win-win solutions. For example, I have been speaking to the Scottish inshore fishing association, which has real concerns about some of these issues. These are hot topics in local communities. Again, it is not beyond us to actually come to solutions that meet our environmental objectives and aims, while maintaining a fishing industry that is sustainable in the longer term. In fact, one could argue that this actually makes the fishing industry much more sustainable, by having a better marine environment.
The overall message here is that this is based on local, local, local. It is amazing what can be done when we let local communities rise to the challenge of climate change. As one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, I said in a recent contribution to our COP28 publication “Keeping 1.5 alive”,
“the public is way ahead of the politicians in their thinking on ocean protection and environmental wellbeing.”
I believe that that is still true today. It is local communities’ enthusiasm and dedication that leads to real change. We need to invest in the community capacity to meet our climate change targets and ambitions. That is how we can replicate the success that we have heard put so eloquently by other speakers today, and try and match their ambitions here in the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. I thank Sir Robert Buckland for securing this very important debate. This area has long been of interest to me. Of course, my constituency has connections with the South Atlantic, with the Terra Nova expedition having left in 1910 from Cardiff bay, where it is commemorated. There was also the Welsh involvement in the Falklands conflict; the first I heard of South Georgia was in relation to the terrible events in 1982. I am a fan of Shackleton—as I am sure many others in the room are—and have read his diaries, “South”, and “The Voyage of the James Caird”. The arrival at South Georgia and his incredible efforts along with Crean and Worsley has never left my mind.
I take a deep interest in the overseas territories, large and small. I was delighted to meet the previous chief Ministers and representatives of the overseas territories last week as they visited London for the Joint Ministerial Council. On my visit to the Falklands in November last year—I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to that, as a shadow Minister—I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Sinclair Willis, the chief executive officer of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Alison Blake, who, as well as being the Governor of the Falkland Islands, serves as His Majesty’s Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. We discussed these issues in great detail. Indeed, at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, I was privileged to meet RAF pilots who had conducted some of the patrol missions over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and they showed me the incredible footage they had taken from their A400M the week before. That was a truly special occasion.
Before I go into some of the detail, I reiterate Labour’s unwavering commitment to the UK’s overseas territories in the South Atlantic and across the world. In particular, I want to make clear our cast-iron commitment to the economic, physical and environmental security of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and indeed every territory that makes up the global British family. We will defend their sovereignty. It is non-negotiable—end of—particularly given some comments that we have heard in the media in recent weeks.
My visit to the region underscored to me not only the relevance of the South Atlantic as a crucial area for global environmental diversity, but the competing geopolitical and economic interests in the region, which are growing only more prominent. That is why I am thankful for this debate. I am also familiar with the wildlife in the South Atlantic and, indeed, the very, very cold waters. I had the pleasure of swimming at Yorke bay with the noble Lord Hannan as the gulls watched on, and I swam with penguins at Bluff cove. I have had some very direct experiences of the incredible environment in the South Atlantic.
Very important points have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members today about a range of issues, from avian flu to the importance of krill. We have also heard about the situation facing other overseas territories in relation to their marine resources, including from the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon. I refer to my comments about the Chagos islands and the importance of the environmental and marine sustainability in the debate we had in this place a few months ago.
Of course, the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands marine protected area is one of the world’s largest MPAs. The full protection now covers 283,000 km and is supported by the Government there, with the aim of conserving the rich marine biodiversity while allowing sustainable fisheries. Indeed, as we have heard, the MPA harbours a quarter of the world’s penguins and breeding colonies of several species of albatross, along with Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals.
The UK overseas territories’ marine environments are of global significance, from Antarctica to the Caribbean, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. They contain 94% of the unique species that the UK is responsible for and have marine areas that extend over 2% of the world’s ocean surface. Although they are negligible contributors to climate change and global warming, their unique environments are particularly vulnerable to the effects of not only rising sea levels, but climate change, rising temperatures in waters and the loss of biodiversity that comes with that. They must also be integral to the solutions we find going forward.
However, we also see the clear focus on the region by many global powers; China and Russia have been mentioned. I saw evidence of that in the presence of Chinese fishing vessels off the economic exclusion zones of the Falkland Islands—I am talking about the jiggers that pull up squid from the ocean. There were 300 Chinese vessels stationed there, operating on an industrial scale with little data sharing or other co-operation because of the wider disputes in the region, despite the very important efforts made by fisheries scientists, many of whom are based in the Falklands, and of course the excellent work of organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey.
Just to clarify, the fishing vessels that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are outside the marine protected area, within which they cannot fish.
Yes, absolutely, but the point that I am making is that the ambitions of, and indeed, the attempts by global powers to operate in these environments are increasing. We have seen that with the Chinese application for—
I will be very quick. However, I note that the SNP spokesperson, Douglas Chapman, took about seven and a half minutes and I should have an equivalent length of time, if that is okay. I will be as quick as I can, because I do want the Minister to answer.
I come on to my questions for the Minister. Concerns have obviously been expressed about sustainability by Great Blue Ocean and many other organisations. Can she explain to what extent the UK’s interests and the aims and operations of CCAMLR align, and will she say how we will work to protect the region and make sure that, crucially, we make data-based decisions about the measures that are brought in?
Can the Minister explain what our ambitions in terms of climate change are and what the evidence is about how the changes in the marine environment, in particular, are affecting fishing stocks and krill stocks? There has been a mean temperature increase in South Georgia of between 0.9% and 2.3% between January and August, and 97% of glaciers have retreated. Those are really serious issues.
Can the Minister explain how we are consulting environmental and scientific experts in the region? In particular, given the nature of the governance of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, can she explain how that operates and say whether we have any plans to ensure that there is full accountability? There are obviously a lot of concerns in the Falkland Islands about how decisions are taken, a little distance away across the oceans.
The blue belt programme and all the global initiatives are absolutely critical. They enjoy our full support, but we need to make sure that we are ready and aware of the challenges to come—geopolitical, environmental and otherwise—so that we make the very best decisions to protect our crucial oceanic biodiversity and resources.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland on securing this debate and I appreciate the work that he and the many environment networks are doing to help to protect some of the world’s most precious places. On the point made by Douglas Chapman, I believe that we are all connected to our great oceans and nature protection these days; my children certainly keep me very connected. Whether or not our constituencies are bounded by the sea, as mine and the hon. Member’s are, that view is strongly held by everyone.
I am conscious both of time and that I am not the Minister formally overseeing the polar regions—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) is away. I will therefore ensure that officials write to answer some of the more detailed questions.
This debate provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase the partnership between the FCDO and the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As we have heard, that overseas territory is renowned for its near-pristine environment. It is a true haven for wildlife, with globally important populations of seals and penguins. Those waters host a vast array of marine life, including, as colleagues have set out eloquently, migrating whales and the incredibly important Antarctic krill.
Conservation of that environment is at the heart of our collaboration with the Government of the territory, which was designated as an MPA in 2012 to conserve its rich biodiversity and to establish a framework for management and research. Those provisions were strengthened in 2019, following an independent five-year review.
The zone covers more than 1 million sq km and provides for highly regulated fishing in a way that protects the unique marine ecosystem. The UK’s flagship blue belt programme supports both its management and enforcement there. The destructive practice of bottom trawling is prohibited throughout, and long-line fishing is limited to depths of between 700 metres and 2,250 metres and is restricted to just 6% of the whole protected area. Toothfish and krill fishing is permitted only in four winter months to reduce the impact on seabirds, penguins, seals and whales, and nearly a quarter of the territory’s most vulnerable marine areas are completely closed to fishing.
It is entirely legitimate to ask why fishing should be allowed at all in such a remote and pristine environment. However, introducing strict regulation ended the illegal practices that had decimated stocks and driven species such as the marbled rockcod to near-extinction. The sale of licences not only underpins British sovereignty and control of those waters, but—as colleagues set out—provides funding for the territory’s Government to operate a patrol vessel. Importantly, the fishing vessels also provide valuable scientific data, along with watchful eyes to report any illegal activity, should there be any.
The most complex reason to maintain well-regulated fishing lies in the UK’s membership of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which I will refer to as “the commission” for short. Since 1982, that has provided for fishing in the Southern ocean, where consistent with conservation. It has tackled unregulated operations and heralded a new era of international co-operation on marine science and research.
Despite Argentina’s counterclaim to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, it also signed up as a member, on the basis of the commission’s framework for international co-operation. Careful negotiations struck a fine line for the UK and Argentina in providing an international role for the commission to determine the levels of catch to be taken across the Southern ocean. In respect of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the UK determines who receives licences to enter and fish in the territory’s waters.
Meanwhile, the UK’s regulation of toothfish across SGSSI underpins our sovereign rights and prevents others from seeking to fish our waters. Relinquishing control of the fishery would leave the territory’s waters at risk of incursion by others. Sadly, that is topical, because Russia has blocked consensus in the commission on the catch limit for South Georgia’s toothfish for the past two years. That limit is scientifically derived, and there is no basis to Russia’s assertions. To protect our sovereign rights, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have continued to operate the fishery. We will carry on working with our allies and partners to address Russia’s destructive intransigence.
On krill, identified and spoken of by colleagues, the fishery spans the sea from Antarctica to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the consistent scientific advice of the commission is that vessels targeting krill should be widely spread out. That agreement has been rolled over for the past three years pending a new agreement that some hope will provide for a greater catch limit. Scientific research to support a redistribution over the full area of the fishery is ongoing. In the meantime, the territorial Government control the distribution of vessels licensed to fish for krill around South Georgia. No licences have been granted to fish around the South Sandwich Islands for more than three decades.
I am conscious of the time. On a couple of issues raised by colleagues, the second five-year review of the MPA, including a symposium in June and an internal evaluation, is ongoing. Experts and stakeholders have been invited to a workshop in December to consider whether the MPA is meeting its objectives and whether further measures are required. Great British Oceans has submitted its proposals for further no-take zones to be declared. It will participate in the workshop, and its expertise and input will be most welcome.
To conclude, the UK is proud of our blue belt programme, which protects more than 4 million square miles of ocean, and I look forward to continuing this discussion with colleagues.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for her comprehensive answer, and to all spokespeople from all parties. I will make a few points before we end.
With regard to the argument about not extending the no-fish zone, the precautionary principle is important, bearing in mind climate change. With China seeking to have another half-a-million allocation of krill to be fished in the Antarctic region, we need to acknowledge the pressure. The precautionary principle is therefore right. Any idea that by doing that we transfer an allocation or the pressure to other areas is not right, because they are not transferable.
Finally, the last time Argentina commented on this issue was in 2018, when it wrote a letter to the Foreign Office after we extended the no-fish area. I therefore suggest that those concerns are unfounded and that the Government should act. I am very grateful—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (