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

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.