South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:16 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 5:16, 22 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Dr Huq. I thank Sir Robert Buckland for securing this very important debate. This area has long been of interest to me. Of course, my constituency has connections with the South Atlantic, with the Terra Nova expedition having left in 1910 from Cardiff bay, where it is commemorated. There was also the Welsh involvement in the Falklands conflict; the first I heard of South Georgia was in relation to the terrible events in 1982. I am a fan of Shackleton—as I am sure many others in the room are—and have read his diaries, “South”, and “The Voyage of the James Caird”. The arrival at South Georgia and his incredible efforts along with Crean and Worsley has never left my mind.

I take a deep interest in the overseas territories, large and small. I was delighted to meet the previous chief Ministers and representatives of the overseas territories last week as they visited London for the Joint Ministerial Council. On my visit to the Falklands in November last year—I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests relating to that, as a shadow Minister—I had the pleasure of meeting Laura Sinclair Willis, the chief executive officer of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Alison Blake, who, as well as being the Governor of the Falkland Islands, serves as His Majesty’s Commissioner for South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. We discussed these issues in great detail. Indeed, at Mount Pleasant in the Falklands, I was privileged to meet RAF pilots who had conducted some of the patrol missions over South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and they showed me the incredible footage they had taken from their A400M the week before. That was a truly special occasion.

Before I go into some of the detail, I reiterate Labour’s unwavering commitment to the UK’s overseas territories in the South Atlantic and across the world. In particular, I want to make clear our cast-iron commitment to the economic, physical and environmental security of the Falkland Islands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and indeed every territory that makes up the global British family. We will defend their sovereignty. It is non-negotiable—end of—particularly given some comments that we have heard in the media in recent weeks.

My visit to the region underscored to me not only the relevance of the South Atlantic as a crucial area for global environmental diversity, but the competing geopolitical and economic interests in the region, which are growing only more prominent. That is why I am thankful for this debate. I am also familiar with the wildlife in the South Atlantic and, indeed, the very, very cold waters. I had the pleasure of swimming at Yorke bay with the noble Lord Hannan as the gulls watched on, and I swam with penguins at Bluff cove. I have had some very direct experiences of the incredible environment in the South Atlantic.

Very important points have been raised by right hon. and hon. Members today about a range of issues, from avian flu to the importance of krill. We have also heard about the situation facing other overseas territories in relation to their marine resources, including from the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon. I refer to my comments about the Chagos islands and the importance of the environmental and marine sustainability in the debate we had in this place a few months ago.

Of course, the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands marine protected area is one of the world’s largest MPAs. The full protection now covers 283,000 km and is supported by the Government there, with the aim of conserving the rich marine biodiversity while allowing sustainable fisheries. Indeed, as we have heard, the MPA harbours a quarter of the world’s penguins and breeding colonies of several species of albatross, along with Antarctic fur seals and southern elephant seals.

The UK overseas territories’ marine environments are of global significance, from Antarctica to the Caribbean, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. They contain 94% of the unique species that the UK is responsible for and have marine areas that extend over 2% of the world’s ocean surface. Although they are negligible contributors to climate change and global warming, their unique environments are particularly vulnerable to the effects of not only rising sea levels, but climate change, rising temperatures in waters and the loss of biodiversity that comes with that. They must also be integral to the solutions we find going forward.

However, we also see the clear focus on the region by many global powers; China and Russia have been mentioned. I saw evidence of that in the presence of Chinese fishing vessels off the economic exclusion zones of the Falkland Islands—I am talking about the jiggers that pull up squid from the ocean. There were 300 Chinese vessels stationed there, operating on an industrial scale with little data sharing or other co-operation because of the wider disputes in the region, despite the very important efforts made by fisheries scientists, many of whom are based in the Falklands, and of course the excellent work of organisations such as the British Antarctic Survey.