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Prioritise most climate-valuable sites in ocean protection plans urge experts

30 June 2022

As the Government consults on the second round of ocean sites to receive a bottom-trawling fishing ban, nature groups are calling for the Government to ramp up protection for the ocean and prioritise the “Most Valuable Player” sites with the highest carbon storage in further plans.

Keeping our largest blue carbon stores healthy is vital to tackling climate change, with seas in the UK storing 50 million more tonnes of carbon than our forests (this number further increases when accounting for marine ecosystems like coastal seagrass and saltmarsh habitats). [1] Preventing damage to the sea floor from bottom-trawling and dredging is a key way to protect our most important blue carbon sites. [2] But only 3 of the 10 English Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) most valuable as carbon stores have either been designated, or are currently being consulted on, for a bottom-trawling ban. [3]

Our most valuable blue carbon sites include: South West Deeps (East) which is approximately 190 km south-west of the Land’s End peninsula. It’s home to a range of animal species, including burrowing worms, urchins, starfish and crustaceans; and Swallow Sands, 100 km offshore from the Northumberland coast, which supports sprat and mackerel, puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars and gannets. Between them these two sites alone store the carbon equivalent of more than 2 million return flights from London to Sydney (12.33 MtCO2e). [4]

The Government’s commitment to ban bottom-trawling in 40 relevant English MPAs by 2024 has been welcomed. But ocean experts are concerned over the lengthy ban process and the potential for the target date to be missed, with a piecemeal approach of consulting on only small numbers of sites at one time. There are also worries that the Government may not protect whole sites, which could lead to much smaller areas being protected and reduced benefits for climate and wildlife.

Ocean conservation groups are therefore urging the Government to commit to a complete and rapid bottom-trawling ban across all of the remaining MPA sites. Conservationists say that at the very least the remaining 7 unprotected sites within the top 10 for blue carbon storage, as identified by Marine Conservation Society research, must be included in their entirety within the ban by the end of this year. These 7 “MVP MPAs” (see full list here) store the carbon equivalent of 3.9 million return flights from London to Sydney (26.3 MtCO2e), making them a key natural climate change solution, which also support treasured marine wildlife including puffins, dolphins, seahorses, and important commercial fishing species such as sole and plaice.

The calls coincide with the UN’s 2022 Ocean Conference where member states are expected to adopt a declaration to implement and facilitate the protection and conservation of the ocean and its resources.

Kirsten Carter, the principal policy officer (marine) for the RSPB, said:
“The ocean plays a key role in regulating the Earth’s climate and in climate mitigation. Whether through the capture and storage of carbon, or through the provision of multiple ecosystem services benefitting nature and people, much is to be gained by protecting and restoring habitats and species contributing to blue carbon. The most effective way to do so is through removing pressures affecting these key ecosystems, a task in which our MPA network has a critical role to play. We must urgently safeguard them from harmful activities and ensure the ocean continues playing such an important role in mitigating against climate change and its effects.”

Matthew Dawson, Marine Policy Officer at Wildlife and Countryside Link said:
“While many people make the most of our ocean over summer, it plays an often unappreciated year-round role in fighting the climate crisis. With a major UN Ocean conference this week, the Government needs to show international leadership and speedily bring forward stronger protections of Marine Protected Areas, many of which are protected in name only and are constantly exposed to damage from commercial fishing. Ministers should also be considering all other options for protection including reviewing fishing licences where boats damage these areas.”

Dr Jean-Luc Solandt, Principle Specialist, Marine Protected Areas at the Marine Conservation Society said:
“Many of the sites of critical importance for protection were not initially designated for their carbon storage potential. However, this added element makes ocean protection even more vital. We analysed fishing data, carbon storage potential, habitat sensitivity and MPA conservation objectives, to rank the remaining offshore sites in need of legislation from ‘critically important’ to ‘important’.

“The huge volumes of carbon which can, and should, be stored by these vast Marine Protected Areas could be put at risk by countless hours of fishing, where vessels indiscriminately drag nets along the seabed. As we face twin climate and biodiversity crises, it’s of the utmost importance that we allow these sites to recover.”

Ed Goodall, Green Whale Manager at Whale and Dolphin Conservation said:
“It's the life within the Ocean that has given rise to the habitable state of the planet we find ourselves in today. As well as protecting key coastal ecosystems, it's essential we also protect marine life, like whales and dolphins, who are responsible for circulating key nutrients and facilitating carbon storage and sequestration. This means reducing harm and threats within and crucially, between, key habitats to ensure ocean life is functioning at maximum capacity.”

Tom Fewins, Policy & Advocacy Officer at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) said:
“Steart Marshes in Somerset has demonstrated saltmarsh can store carbon much faster than forests, showing blue carbon is a key tool in the fight against the climate crisis. Whilst we welcome UK Government commitments at COP26 to progress evidence and action on blue carbon, it can and must move faster. It should include blue carbon in the UK Greenhouse Gas Inventory without delay, accelerating blue carbon creation. We cannot afford to wait.”

Blue carbon is carbon stored by plants, algae and organic matter on the ocean floor. Blue carbon habitats include seagrass beds, reefs, kelp forests, seafloor muds and sands, and saltmarsh. Bottom trawling and dredging prevents the recovery of important wildlife habitats that have already faced decades of damage. Furthermore, it limits the amount of carbon that is stored in the seabed - lowering its ability to curb the climate crisis. Banning bottom-trawling and dredging enables the protection and recovery of: crucial carbon sinks; fishstocks and treasured wildlife.

As well as the crucial importance of ocean habitats in fighting climate change and restoring nature, the economic value of blue carbon storage is huge. The Office for National Statistics has calculated that the amount of carbon removed from our atmosphere by just three blue carbon ecosystems, in one year, has an estimated value of between £742 million and £4,259 million (in 2019 prices). By comparison, Seafish, a non-departmental public body representing the seafood industry, estimated that economic output in the sector was £433 million in 2020.

Recent polling of Brits has demonstrated clear public appetite for more and stronger Government action to protect our Ocean. Almost three-quarters (73%) of Brits say ocean wildlife needs more protection, with just 11% believing that marine life is protected the right amount. More than half of the British public (55%) say damaging bottom-trawling fishing practices should be banned in all our Marine Protected Sites, with less than 1 in 5 (19%) saying that bottom-trawling should be allowed to continue in these areas. [5]

In a new report launched today 'Tackling the climate crisis through ocean protection' marine experts are calling for the Westminster Government to:

  • Ensure that the UK Marine Protected Area (MPA) network protects blue carbon stored in the seabed through restrictions on damaging activities, including commercial fishing.
  • Deliver Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) which protect blue carbon ecosystems.
  • Increase funding and support for nature-based solutions projects which build the resilience of marine and coastal ecosystems to climate change through their protection and restoration, such as the Environment Agency’s ReMeMaRe programme and the proposed MaRePo programme.
  • Give greater protections for coastal habitats that store large amounts of carbon, such as saltmarsh and seagrass.
  • Properly account for Blue Carbon stores in carbon accounting through the inclusion in the first instance of seagrass and saltmarshes in the greenhouse gas inventory and include ambitious blue carbon habitat protection and restoration targets in the UK NDC.

Notes to editors

  1. See Marine Conservation Society’s Blue Carbon report for key statistics on its importance.
  2. Bottom trawling is a method of fishing that involves dragging weighted nets across the sea floor to catch fish. The practice is hugely damaging to the ocean as it destroys habitats and catches any species found in the path of the nets, in addition to those that commercial fishing companies are targeting.
  3. A table listing the carbon storage of all relevant English MPAs (including current protection status) can be viewed here. The values represent the approximate total amount of carbon stored in each MPA, but don’t account for the reactivity/lability of the carbon.
  4. Carbon storage potential of MPAs analysed by Marine Conservation Society in May 2022
  5. Figures are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,696 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 30th - 31st May 2022. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

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