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 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.