South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:02 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of James Gray James Gray Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research, Chair, Environmental Audit Sub-Committee on Polar Research 5:02, 22 November 2023

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend, and next-door neighbour, Sir Robert Buckland for calling this extremely important debate. It is a very important moment in the consideration of these matters as they are being considered by the Foreign Office and by DEFRA. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend Dr Coffey on her four magnificent years in DEFRA. It has been a superb operation. We are sorry she is no longer there, but we are glad to see how active she has been on the Back Benches in the week or so since she was—dethroned, I nearly said.

My right hon. Friend Chris Skidmore made some extremely important points from a position of great knowledge. I will just pick him up slightly on one point: all those things he described and on which we violently agree—about the vital importance of preserving biodiversity in both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands—are largely unconnected, with a question of a no-take zone around the South Sandwich Islands. The two things are not necessarily cause and effect,

I would like to declare an interest. I had the good fortune to visit South Georgia as a guest of the commissioner about four or five years ago, after which we had a debate in Westminster Hall on 19 December 2017. Many of these matters were discussed, and those keenly interested might like to consult Hansard. I am also taking a team from the Environmental Audit Committee to Antarctica over the Christmas recess. It is obviously being paid for, as it is Select Committee activity. I have some interest in these matters as the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group for the polar regions.

I think we were in danger of violently agreeing. No one would disagree that biodiversity is supremely important as are these creatures—including penguins, which I have had the very good fortune to mix with four or five years ago, magnificent elephant seals and the fur seals. It is superb—a heaven on Earth. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon was virtually poetic in describing it. He is absolutely right in his description—it is the most superb and wonderful place in the world.

I therefore strongly support the notion of the establishment of marine protect areas across the whole of the Southern ocean. There are two so far that are acknowledged by CCAMLR: one on the South Orkney Islands, and the other at Ross sea. Both were established under CCAMLR some years ago. CCAMLR is currently considering two or three others—east Antarctica, the Weddell sea and the Antarctic peninsula. We would like to see MPAs established there, but as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon correctly said, political influences in CCAMLR are making that impossible. The Russians and the Chinese in particular will not allow MPAs to be established around Antarctica. We think that is a great shame, and that they should be, but they are not.

By contrast, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have an extremely active and very well-monitored MPA, and has done for now for some 10 or so years. Fishing around the South Sandwich Islands is very carefully monitored by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As I mentioned to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon a moment ago, there is very little fishing. Two vessels go there for one month a year and catch between 50 and 60 tonnes of krill. I think I am right in saying that the valuable Patagonian toothfish are not caught at all, or only in very small quantities. The waters around South Georgia are carefully monitored by the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. They have a very good, sustainable MPA that allows us to catch fish, thereby supporting local communities, particularly in the Falklands, and at the same time preserve these wonderful wild creatures.

I can understand why from a PR standpoint it sounds good to say, “Let’s ban all fishing! Isn’t that great? Aren’t we great? Britain is leading the world in banning all fishing.” There are two problems with that. The first is that there is no fishing there anyhow. Banning something that does not exist does not have any great moral standing. The only boats that fish in the South Sandwich Islands every year are two scientific vessels that look into the krill around there. They pick out 50 or 60 tonnes purely for scientific reasons, and that is entirely licensed by the Falkland Islands. Bringing in a no-take zone would not prevent any fishing that happens there at the moment. I do not believe there are illegal fisheries there at the moment, but if the Chinese or Russians were fishing there, they would still do so even if there were an MPA recognised by the world. Someone cannot be stopped from breaking the law simply by our changing the designation of the waters.

If we were to turn the very well-managed SGSSI MPA into a no-take zone, it would have two very significant consequences that we should be very careful about. First, we would no longer control the waters. At the moment, they are controlled by the Falkland Islands and SGSSI. Therefore, they are effectively British waters. If we were not licensing the very small number of vessels that do go there, we would no longer control those waters. They would become part of CCAMLR and would be subject to the Russians, Chinese and, in particular the Argentinians, who are members of CCAMLR. It might well be that the scientific research vessels that are allowed to go there very occasionally would suddenly become Argentinian vessels or Russian vessels or Chinese vessels. We do not know what the consequences would be, so there is quite a big geopolitical problem that would come with that.

Under CCAMLR, the South Sandwich Islands have some 15% of the allowable krill. If we were to say, “No, there must be no krill fished off the South Sandwich Islands”—none is fished, but we are none the less allowed to catch 15%—that would mean that the 85% that is around Antarctica would become 100%. In other words, we would be taking more krill from the Southern ocean by banning it from SGSSI. The consequence of our bringing in this ban would not be saving krill but catching more of it. We would be increasing the catch by 15%. To those environmentalists who are very concerned about the krill—quite right too, they should be—I would simply say that if we bring in a no-take zone around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, we will increase the Russian and Chinese take by some 15% and will further damage the krill population.

We must be very careful about how we approach these things. Of course, we are all determined to find a way of preserving the environment and the very delicate biodiversity—the superb biodiversity—that exists down there, but the relatively easy “Let’s ban everything” line, which I am afraid my right hon. Friends have all rather easily adopted, ignores some of the very significant geopolitical difficulties that would arise from that. In particular, the long-term battle between the Falklands and the Argentine would rear its ugly head again, because Argentina would say that it has a right to fish those waters.