South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands: Marine Protected Area

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:23 pm on 22 November 2023.

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Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:23, 22 November 2023

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dr Huq. I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Robert Buckland on securing this debate and I appreciate the work that he and the many environment networks are doing to help to protect some of the world’s most precious places. On the point made by Douglas Chapman, I believe that we are all connected to our great oceans and nature protection these days; my children certainly keep me very connected. Whether or not our constituencies are bounded by the sea, as mine and the hon. Member’s are, that view is strongly held by everyone.

I am conscious both of time and that I am not the Minister formally overseeing the polar regions—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) is away. I will therefore ensure that officials write to answer some of the more detailed questions.

This debate provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase the partnership between the FCDO and the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. As we have heard, that overseas territory is renowned for its near-pristine environment. It is a true haven for wildlife, with globally important populations of seals and penguins. Those waters host a vast array of marine life, including, as colleagues have set out eloquently, migrating whales and the incredibly important Antarctic krill.

Conservation of that environment is at the heart of our collaboration with the Government of the territory, which was designated as an MPA in 2012 to conserve its rich biodiversity and to establish a framework for management and research. Those provisions were strengthened in 2019, following an independent five-year review.

The zone covers more than 1 million sq km and provides for highly regulated fishing in a way that protects the unique marine ecosystem. The UK’s flagship blue belt programme supports both its management and enforcement there. The destructive practice of bottom trawling is prohibited throughout, and long-line fishing is limited to depths of between 700 metres and 2,250 metres and is restricted to just 6% of the whole protected area. Toothfish and krill fishing is permitted only in four winter months to reduce the impact on seabirds, penguins, seals and whales, and nearly a quarter of the territory’s most vulnerable marine areas are completely closed to fishing.

It is entirely legitimate to ask why fishing should be allowed at all in such a remote and pristine environment. However, introducing strict regulation ended the illegal practices that had decimated stocks and driven species such as the marbled rockcod to near-extinction. The sale of licences not only underpins British sovereignty and control of those waters, but—as colleagues set out—provides funding for the territory’s Government to operate a patrol vessel. Importantly, the fishing vessels also provide valuable scientific data, along with watchful eyes to report any illegal activity, should there be any.

The most complex reason to maintain well-regulated fishing lies in the UK’s membership of the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources, which I will refer to as “the commission” for short. Since 1982, that has provided for fishing in the Southern ocean, where consistent with conservation. It has tackled unregulated operations and heralded a new era of international co-operation on marine science and research.

Despite Argentina’s counterclaim to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, it also signed up as a member, on the basis of the commission’s framework for international co-operation. Careful negotiations struck a fine line for the UK and Argentina in providing an international role for the commission to determine the levels of catch to be taken across the Southern ocean. In respect of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the UK determines who receives licences to enter and fish in the territory’s waters.

Meanwhile, the UK’s regulation of toothfish across SGSSI underpins our sovereign rights and prevents others from seeking to fish our waters. Relinquishing control of the fishery would leave the territory’s waters at risk of incursion by others. Sadly, that is topical, because Russia has blocked consensus in the commission on the catch limit for South Georgia’s toothfish for the past two years. That limit is scientifically derived, and there is no basis to Russia’s assertions. To protect our sovereign rights, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands have continued to operate the fishery. We will carry on working with our allies and partners to address Russia’s destructive intransigence.

On krill, identified and spoken of by colleagues, the fishery spans the sea from Antarctica to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the consistent scientific advice of the commission is that vessels targeting krill should be widely spread out. That agreement has been rolled over for the past three years pending a new agreement that some hope will provide for a greater catch limit. Scientific research to support a redistribution over the full area of the fishery is ongoing. In the meantime, the territorial Government control the distribution of vessels licensed to fish for krill around South Georgia. No licences have been granted to fish around the South Sandwich Islands for more than three decades.

I am conscious of the time. On a couple of issues raised by colleagues, the second five-year review of the MPA, including a symposium in June and an internal evaluation, is ongoing. Experts and stakeholders have been invited to a workshop in December to consider whether the MPA is meeting its objectives and whether further measures are required. Great British Oceans has submitted its proposals for further no-take zones to be declared. It will participate in the workshop, and its expertise and input will be most welcome.

To conclude, the UK is proud of our blue belt programme, which protects more than 4 million square miles of ocean, and I look forward to continuing this discussion with colleagues.