Henry Smith: ‘The ocean has never faced so many threats. Here’s what the UK must do’

Somewhere on the seabed off the coast of Land’s End lies a boulder with my name spray-painted on it in chalk. While submarine graffiti is not my regular hobby, this particular boulder is one of dozens that were dropped there to form a physical barrier against bottom trawlers ploughing up the seafloor in one of our Marine Protected Areas.

Sadly this approach cannot be replicated everywhere, nor should it have to be. The high seas, the vast expanses of the ocean beyond our territorial waters, have long been the Wild West for industrial fishing. Just 3% of these areas are currently protected and lawlessness has prevailed at the expense of our fragile marine ecosystems.

I firmly believe that our ocean has never faced as many threats – the relentless squeeze of industrial fishing and the ominous spectre of deep-sea mining to name just two. A recent report showed that the time industrial vessels spent fishing on the high seas rose to over 8.5 million hours last year – 8.5% higher than in 2018. What is worse, the increase was even higher in areas that scientists have identified as most vulnerable, underlining the urgency of the crisis facing our ocean. This unchecked exploitation is damaging fish populations and wreaking havoc on the delicate balance of life in our oceans.

That is why the UK signing the Global Ocean Treaty at the United Nations last month was such a momentous event. It marks a critical milestone on the path towards creating protected areas in at least 30% of our oceans by 2030 – a global ‘30×30’ target that the UK was instrumental in getting over the line.

But it was also about safeguarding the UK’s environmental credentials. On the same day that foreign minister Lord Ahmad put pen to paper on the Treaty, the prime minister gave a speech altering policies on the pace of that vital journey to get us to Net Zero. There is no doubt it has impacted the UK’s environmental policy stance.

It is therefore incumbent upon us to demonstrate our dedication to environmental stewardship, and our endorsement of the Treaty is a step in that direction – not only to protect the denizens of the deep and their habitats, but also to protect the ocean’s ability to absorb and store carbon emissions. I will be sponsoring a parliamentary event on 23rd October along with Great Blue Ocean and the High Seas Alliance to celebrate the progress we have made, but also to underline that time is running out.

The UK played a leading role in the negotiations for a Global Ocean Treaty and now we must be among the first to ratify it. A further 80 countries joined us in signing the Treaty last month, demonstrating the momentum and consensus behind it. If we are to have any hope of achieving the 30×30 target, the Treaty must be ratified by 60 countries in the next two years. The UK must lead the way.

At the same time, we must capitalise on the new opportunities the Treaty offers us by putting forward proposals for new ocean sanctuaries. This will ensure we can hit the ground running when the Treaty comes into force in 2025.

We are particularly well placed to work with fellow signatories of the Hamilton Declaration, to champion an ocean sanctuary in the Sargasso Sea near Bermuda. This remarkably clear patch of the Atlantic is named after the floating clumps of Sargassum seaweed that are home to an amazing array of species, while also sequestering carbon and pumping out oxygen.

The UK has a golden opportunity to show leadership on the global stage in addressing this challenge. By ratifying the Treaty as soon as possible and putting forward proposals for some of the first marine sanctuaries, we can turn this challenge into a diplomatic success story.

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