South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:57 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Chris Skidmore Chris Skidmore Conservative, Kingswood 4:57, 22 November 2023

It is an honour to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland for the opportunity to speak, and I thank him for securing this debate.

The future marine protection of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands has been a long-standing campaign for the APPG and our associate members, including the Pew Trusts, and featured in our recent “Keeping 1.5 alive” report, which sets out nine priorities for the forthcoming COP28 summit, which begins next week.

The UK Government count all SGSSI waters—over 1 million sq km—as a marine protected area. However, only 23% of the SGSSI waters are currently off limits to commercial extraction. In the remaining waters, industrialised krill fishing is legal, which undermines protections according to international standards. The SGSSI Government will be reviewing the MPA with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office at the end of 2023, meaning that there is one chance, ahead of the next general election, to significantly increase the protection of marine species found on the islands. To demonstrate its protection of overseas territories, the UK must use that review as an opportunity to enhance the environmental protection of SGSSI.

In my view, there are three major changes relating to the Antarctic and the Southern ocean that should be taken into account when reviewing whether to enhance protection of this biologically unique UK overseas territory, the first of which is climate change. Climate change is increasingly being recognised as a major ecological threat. Today, we are seeing projections that we are heading towards global temperatures beyond 1.5°, the safeguard agreed in Paris. We will potentially pass that guardrail in the next decade, and the Antarctic will be no exception. In the past year, we have seen the lowest sea ice extent ever recorded, major failures of Emperor penguin breeding and impacts on Antarctic fur seals breeding on South Georgia, linked to variable food resources. Business as usual may not be an option, as we learn to manage the consequences of our past actions. Management will not be easy; it will require tough decisions. Humans, above all, rely on ecosystem support—I understand this. Therefore, we need to fully protect functioning ecosystems across the planet, including within the world’s oceans.

The second change concerns the great whales. Baleen whales are finally beginning to return in greater numbers to their feeding grounds in the Southern ocean. Approximately 1.5 million whales were killed in the 20th century: 90% of all catches were taken by just four nations, which sadly include the UK. A crucible for southern whaling was South Georgia. So far, the humpback whale is the species recovering the best. The stock that breeds off Brazil and migrates to feeding grounds around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands is now close to a full recovery, which is a fantastic example of what is possible. However, fin whales are only beginning to show early signs of recovery, while blue whales are still depleted.

All those animals depend on dense aggregations of krill. Preserving adequate krill for the natural ecosystem rather than for commercial fisheries must be a priority. Recent estimates suggest that there is insufficient krill in the Southern ocean to support the historical populations of baleen whales, from before they were hunted to near extinction.

The third important change is—as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon mentioned —politicisation in CCAMLR, which is the multilateral management authority responsible for overseeing krill fisheries. There are major disputes about the development of marine protected areas, how best to manage them in the context of climate change and how the UK should be able to manage its own waters surrounding South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

A perfect storm of uncertainty is ahead. The Southern ocean marine ecosystem is changing both physically and biologically, yet the organisation that is meant to manage it is unable to do so. The UK is already a leading proponent of 30 by 30, a worldwide initiative for Governments to designate 30% of the Earth’s land, ocean and sea as protected areas by 2030. Where better to set an example than at South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands? They are the breeding location of almost 15% of all penguins worldwide, with the largest penguin colony in the world on the South Sandwich Islands, where there are more than a million chinstrap penguins. The islands and surrounding waters are also home to the last 6,000 South Georgia pipits and 95% of the global population of Antarctic fur seals.

There is a unique opportunity for the UK to increase protection in the waters surrounding these islands. Given the UK’s past involvement in whaling, it has a particular responsibility to implement appropriately scaled protection measures. Increasing the level of full protection through legal measures should now be a priority for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands MPA review.