South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:09 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Douglas Chapman Douglas Chapman Scottish National Party, Dunfermline and West Fife 5:09, 22 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr Huq. I thank Sir Robert Buckland for bringing this debate to the Chamber. When I looked at South Swindon, I did not consider it to be a coastal community—in fact, I am sure it is not—but the right hon. and learned Member could well have been from a coastal community, such was his understanding, commitment and enthusiasm for the topic.

It is a real relief to hear some good news about climate change with the recovery of the ecosystem in South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands. A once-exploited whaling hub has now been transformed into what might be called a wildlife haven, as one of the world’s largest marine protected areas. Densities of fish—and, as we heard earlier, krill—are back in the food chain, leading to a resurgence in numbers of whales and penguins in the area, especially the king penguins that feed off the fish. Maybe we could have renamed them the Great British penguin—I almost feel that Boris Johnson is back with us—but never mind, we will move on.

This is a good news story, because the local government took action to protect some of the most fertile seas on Earth by enforcing tight fishing quotas and forbidding oil and gas exploration. This MPA is now going through its second five-year review, in consultation with experts and stakeholders, to ensure that the evidence-based management plans are working to their full capacity, and to assess new dangers and opportunities to make further progress.

It is this kind of local stewardship in rebuilding and supporting a once vibrant ecosystem that is key to the success of the area’s recovery. I will give a few examples of impressive stewardship programmes in Scotland, led by local communities and those who are heavily invested in their coastal waters and lochs. The Restoration Forth project in my constituency is a superb example. It is a partnership between local community groups managed by the WWF, with Project Seagrass, academics such as Dr Richard Lilley, and other organisations and charities working together to restore vital seagrass meadows and oyster beds in the firth of Forth—once an area rich in marine diversity, but one that has been sadly depleted over a long period of time. In fact, I was delighted to don some wellies and warm clothing one Thursday morning earlier this year, to be part of the project’s seagrass planting session. I was even more pleased to hear that recently, the roots have taken hold and the first seagrass meadow has been re-established in the firth of Forth. That is excellent news.

In a recent important paper, Alan Munro from the Coastal Communities Network and Fauna and Flora International spent some time examining a shared vision for marine restoration in Scotland. He highlighted the fact that Scotland’s inshore seas supported vast seagrass meadows in days gone by, but those habitats have now disappeared due to pollution, bottom-contact fishing and coastal development. He pointed out that the restoration of those habitats has enormous potential to deliver valuable services for humans, including protecting our coasts from flooding and erosion, improving water quality, fisheries production, and capturing and storing carbon for climate mitigation and adaptation. Alan’s paper examines how best to scale up successful community-led initiatives in marine restoration. We could bring success to Scottish waters if we keep the same energy and commitment shown by these amazing groups around our coast.

It is this kind of shared vision—community-led, bottom-up and in consultation with a wide range of experts and stakeholders—that leads to success in restoring our vital marine habitats. We can see it in faraway overseas territories such as South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands with their incredible and unique marine ecosystems, and we can see it led by those living next to our beautiful waters in Scotland. However, in finding the solutions, we need to talk to our fishing communities and those who make their living from energy production off our coasts. It is not beyond the wit of people in this country to arrive at win-win solutions. For example, I have been speaking to the Scottish inshore fishing association, which has real concerns about some of these issues. These are hot topics in local communities. Again, it is not beyond us to actually come to solutions that meet our environmental objectives and aims, while maintaining a fishing industry that is sustainable in the longer term. In fact, one could argue that this actually makes the fishing industry much more sustainable, by having a better marine environment.

The overall message here is that this is based on local, local, local. It is amazing what can be done when we let local communities rise to the challenge of climate change. As one of the vice-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on the environment, I said in a recent contribution to our COP28 publication “Keeping 1.5 alive”,

“the public is way ahead of the politicians in their thinking on ocean protection and environmental wellbeing.”

I believe that that is still true today. It is local communities’ enthusiasm and dedication that leads to real change. We need to invest in the community capacity to meet our climate change targets and ambitions. That is how we can replicate the success that we have heard put so eloquently by other speakers today, and try and match their ambitions here in the UK.