South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:44 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 4:44, 22 November 2023

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.