South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:49 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Therese Coffey Therese Coffey Conservative, Suffolk Coastal 4:49, 22 November 2023

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.