The Conservative Party has recently boasted about its achievements in protecting marine habitats through its ‘Blue Belt Programme’, and went further to pledge a new ‘Blue Planet Fund’ ahead of the upcoming general election.
But, upon closer inspection, the claims of how much ocean has actually been properly protected are more dubious.
The government’s 25 Year Environment Plan promises that a series of ‘Blue Belts’ will be established in the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). This will occur through the ‘Blue Belt Programme’, an initiative that aims to design conservation areas around the UKOTs based on the best scientific evidence and local use of the oceans, and support their effective ongoing management, monitoring and enforcement by UKOT authorities.
Within these Blue Belts, human activity that damages the environment will be restricted, so to allow the marine environment and its wildlife to recover. The target adopted was to establish four million square kilometres (km2) of ‘Blue Belt’ by 2020 - the equivalent of protecting 32 percent of UKOT waters.
This is a very welcome ambition, given that 95 percent of unique British species and 90 percent of British marine biodiversity are found in the UKOTs.
Earlier this year, the government stated that just over three million of the target of four million km2 had been protected, through the creation of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs).
MPAs are areas of ocean that are established that restrict certain activities. However, MPAs can take very different forms, with varying success in conserving the marine environment.
For instance, more ambitious MPAs often restrict all fishing activities to safeguard fish populations (‘no-take zones’), whilst other MPAs may still allow commercial fishing activities.
The Blue Belts around different UKOTs are made up of different MPAs, allowing some activities within one bit of a Blue Belt but not others. Whilst three million square kilometres of UKOT ocean is currently covered by MPAs, much of it in fact has very little protection,
Helpfully, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the international authority that advises on best conservation practices, has created a ‘Protected Areas Categories System’ to judge the strength of protected areas (including MPAs).
The most protective type of MPA is a category ‘Ia’ Protected Area, which is a ‘strict nature reserve’ that prohibits most human activity, protects biodiversity and landscape features, and is thoroughly monitored and enforced.
The weakest kind is category ‘VI’on IUCN’s scale, which is a ‘protected area with sustainable use of natural resources’ that seeks to protect areas through preserving natural processes and allowing most kinds of human activity to continue occurring, but in a sustainable way.
The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the UKOT South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands - an area of ocean that is 1.04 km2 in size - was declared in 2012 to be a category ‘IV’ MPA on the IUCN’s scale.
However, following a review, the IUCN’s verdict was that only 2 percent of the declared MPA was of this standard, largely because the remaining part of the MPA still permitted industrial fishing.
Despite this, the South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands EEZ is included in the Government’s claim that it has protected over three million kilometres squared of UKOT marine habitat.
So, simply put, three million km2 of UKOT ocean has not been fully protected. At the very least, the Government should seek IUCN reviews of all UKOT MPAs against their criteria, to validate these claims, identify where protections could be strengthened, and truly protect our oceans.
William Nicolle is an energy and environment researcher at the political think tank Bright Blue. Twitter: @WRNicolle.