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Green charities deliver verdict on stalled “super year” for marine protection

17 January 2022

The Government declared 2021 would be a Marine Super Year, highlighting ‘unprecedented alignment of international and domestic marine agendas’ at the Coastal Futures Conference 2021. [1]

One year on, ahead of the 2022 major annual conference on marine conservation, UK charities including the Marine Conservation Society, RSPB, and The Wildlife Trusts, have issued a new scorecard report which shows the Government has made no demonstrable progress in 11 out of 17 important steps for action on ocean recovery. [2]

This follows huge criticism in 2020 when the Government missed its goal (set under EU law) of achieving Good Environmental Status for the UK’s seas. The Government failed to meet 11 out of 15 targets for healthy seas, which the charities say is a mark of a deep ecological crisis at sea. For example, the target for Good Status for waterbirds was missed, with sharp declines for some marine bird species like the Kittiwake in both the Celtic Seas and the Greater North Sea. There has also been public outcry over the impacts of sewage discharges into the sea, with sewage spilling into coastal bathing waters 5,517 times in the last year.

Sean Clement of WWF-UK, Chair of the Wildlife and Countryside Link Marine Group, which coordinated the report, said:
“While there have been highlights in 2021 such as the commitment to tackle bottom trawling and deliver new Highly Protected Marine Areas, overall we’re disappointed in this stalled super year. The urgency of the climate and nature emergencies means policies to protect and restore our amazing marine life cannot be kicked into the long seagrass, 2022 must be the moment that words turn into action”.

The report ‘2021: The Marine Super Year? An assessment of Government progress on ocean protection’, analysed progress for five key areas for action. The five key areas include setting ocean recovery targets; policy to protect and enhance marine wildlife; offshore planning for renewables and nature; reducing bycatch of marine wildlife by fishing boats; and locking away “blue carbon” to reduce climate change. It found that in every area Government action had been insufficient to help halt the decline of nature.

The report highlights that there has been an increasing public and political awareness of the vital role that healthy seas play in building healthy communities and in fighting the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. However, it said that those opportunities could be missed, with policy on sustainable fishing particularly lacking ambition.

The Government has not committed to ensure that fishing catch limits are set within scientifically recommended sustainable levels. It has also taken no action to roll-out Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) to ensure that boats stick to rules like quota allocations and sustainability requirements. This is critical to reduce the thousands of avoidable fishing-related deaths of dolphins, whales, porpoises, sea-birds and other marine-life. A promise in February from the Secretary of State that bottom trawling would be prohibited in the Dogger Bank special conservation area, alongside three other English MPAs, has also yet to be put into action.

Dr Richard Benwell, Chief Executive of Wildlife and Countryside Link, said:
“Government is like a super tanker. It is slowly changing course, but it is still carrying a payload of environmental destruction along the way. Our marine environment can’t afford to wait.

“Ministers have made some excellent commitments for ocean recovery, but action has been slow to follow. We hope that 2021 was a ‘behind the scenes super year’ and that real change to halt destructive bottom trawling, tackle bycatch of dolphins and seals, and genuine protection for marine habitats will soon surface in 2022.”

One area where there has been positive progress is the Government’s flagship Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMA) programme, which have the potential to restrict fishing and other damaging activities from selected marine sites in English waters, with new HPMA’s to be piloted. [3] In particular, the report highlights the role that HPMAs can play in protecting biodiversity and reducing climate change by protecting “blue carbon” habitats, such as the seabed and seagrasses, which capture and lock away greenhouse gases. The Government elevated the role of the ocean in the climate negotiations last year at COP26 and the Environment Agency has mapped the areas of our coast and seabed that can best support our net-zero goals.

Joan Edwards OBE, Director Policy and Public Affairs at The Wildlife Trusts said:
“While 2021 has laid the groundwork, we hope to see the delivery of vital HPMAs in 2022, with a list of pilot sites this Spring and for these protections to be in place by the year’s end. Action to protect our precious marine life remains in the Government’s reach and the ambitions for a Marine Super Year can still be achieved given sufficient political will.

“We call on the Government to enact the policies we have highlighted as outstanding from 2021 as the basis of a comprehensive marine recovery agenda for 2022.”

Ocean and conservation experts are calling for three key actions from Government to make 2022 a new super-year for ocean action:

1. Measures to ensure our Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are genuinely protected, including:

- The effective prohibition of all harmful activities such as bottom-trawling in MPAs

- Effective identification and safeguarding of priority Blue Carbon resources

2. Implementation of robust monitoring and enforcement across the UK fishing fleet, and particularly the use of Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM) cameras and associated mitigation measures, are vital to dramatically reduce the unacceptably high number of fishing-related deaths for dolphins, porpoises, sharks, seabirds and other marine-life. It would be welcome if REM was incentivised in the Government’s new £65m fishing infrastructure scheme.

3. The refocusing of the UK Marine strategy to provide a clear route-map to achieving 2030 targets, to protect 30% of UK waters for nature and to halt nature’s decline in UK seas

ENDS

Notes to Editors:

1. In a speech to the Coastal Futures Conference in January 2021, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow MP declared 2021 to be a ‘Marine Super Year’, confirming that the UK would use its presidency of COP26 to lead calls for renewed action to restore the marine environment to health. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/a-vision-for-uk-seas

2. The Wildlife and Countryside Link Marine Scorecard was published in Spring 2021, setting out the policies marine experts believed were necessary and achievable in 2021 to show real leadership on the marine environment. Today’s report ranks how well the Government has met the key steps needed for ocean recovery outlined in Spring. The Marine Scorecard was developed and ranked by a panel of experts from across nature NGOs within the membership of Wildlife and Countryside Link, the largest environmental coalition in England. The rankings were based on a consideration of Government announcements, policy and action, and marine data.

Organisations supporting the Marine Super Year Scorecard include the Marine Conservation Society, Buglife, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, WWF-UK, The Wildlife Trusts, ORCA, the Institute of Fisheries Management, RSPB and Surfers Against Sewage.

3. The Government announced in June that new Highly Protected Marine Areas will be piloted in English seas from 2022.