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Foreword by Chris Packham
The UK’s network of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are our government’s much lauded symbol of the UK’s ‘world-leading’ marine protection standards. On paper, the network appears impressive. More than 25% of our territorial waters are covered by Marine Protected Areas, allegedly safeguarding important ecosystems like reefs and kelp forests, and protecting iconic species like porpoises and dolphins. Over half are thought to contain habitats vital for the UK’s future climate resilience.
However, there’s a catch… because a deeper look into the state of the UK’s offshore Marine Protected Areas, the areas we will have new powers to protect after leaving the EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP), reveals an alarming reality completely at odds with the rhetoric used by our government. Only five of the 73 UK offshore MPAs ‘may be’ progressing towards conservation targets, and only two out of 73 offshore MPAs have any long-term site condition monitoring available.
Worse, highly destructive industrial fishing continues on a vast scale inside supposedly protected parts of UK waters. Supertrawlers (huge trawlers over 100 metres in length) collectively spend thousands of hours each year fishing in UK Marine Protected Areas, including in MPAs established specifically to protect porpoises, a species potentially threatened by this activity.
Our government has repeatedly stated that leaving the European Union will provide us with a historic opportunity to implement better protection for our oceans. Defra Minister, Rebecca Pow, in response to a parliamentary question on supertrawler activity in MPAs, said: “the Common Fisheries Policy has restricted our ability to implement fisheries management measures within offshore Marine Protected Areas. The Fisheries Bill proposes a new power to allow the introduction of measures for conservation purposes, both within our MPAs and more widely across English waters.”
The former Environment Secretary Michael Gove also said in 2017 that through Brexit we can: “ensure that we can have sustainable fish stocks for the future… I think it’s important that we recognise that leaving the European Union is going to help the environment.”
As Brexit negotiations continue in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, the deadline for a post-Brexit fisheries agreement with the EU looms large. Our government now has a chance to set the record straight and fix our broken network of offshore Marine Protected Areas, which are no more than lines drawn on a map with little meaningful protection.
If they don’t seize this chance, then the government should not continue to posture as a leader in ocean protection on the world stage, whilst it fails to properly protect important marine areas on its own doorstep.
Brexit, regardless of your opinion on the matter, is a real opportunity to create positive change for the seas around the UK. The question now is whether our government will live up to its rhetoric, and do what is necessary to properly cherish our oceans.