South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Robert Buckland Robert Buckland Conservative, South Swindon 4:30, 22 November 2023

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.