That was the topic of the day on the Monday of this year’s Conservative Party Conference in Manchester. Yes, penguins. Of which a third of the world’s population are, in fact, British.
For our organisations, the Conservative Environment Network (CEN) and Conservative Friends of the Ocean (CFOTO), the Conservative Party Conference is a chance to raise awareness of issues and opportunities that may not usually get the party’s full attention. And this year, we teamed up to launch our campaign to protect Great British penguins.
The UK’s Overseas Territories (OTs) are home to some of the world’s most incredible biodiversity, particularly those surrounded by swathes of ocean, like South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI) in the South Atlantic - a place even more biodiverse than the Galapagos Islands and home to millions of penguins.
Recognising the oceans around the OTs biodiversity hotspots, in 2012 the Government sought to protect them by designating them as marine protected areas. Combined they form the Blue Belt and should be regarded as one of the most important environmental successes of the last thirteen years of Conservative government.
"As part of a five-yearly review process, there is an opportunity to increase the amount the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands afforded full protections."
However, in SGSSI specifically, only 23% of its waters are fully protected, meaning that damaging, industrial fishing is still able to take place. As part of a five-yearly review process, there is an opportunity to increase the amount the waters around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands afforded full protections. Raising awareness of this opportunity and galvanising support for it among Conservatives formed the core message of our campaign at the conference.
Our day time efforts were focused on the CEN stand in the main exhibition hall. We spoke to delegates about the Blue Belt, and encouraged attendees to sign up to a letter we are sending to the Prime Minister to express their support for the Blue Belt and for strengthening it. Notable visitors to the stand included the Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, Defra Minister Mark Spencer, and MPs Chris Grayling, Mark Jenkinson, Jo Gideon, Michael Fabricant, and Selaine Saxby.
We also gave out penguin-themed freebies, including tote bags and stickers. As the day progressed, the sightings of this merchandise became more and more frequent and you could hardly go from one stand to the next without spotting a penguin. The success of the campaign had not gone unnoticed. Politicians and pollsters alike were taking to social media to talk about them.
But the campaign did not stop there. Later in the evening CFOTO hosted a reception in partnership with the Great Blue Ocean coalition, dedicated to championing the Blue Belt Programme. We were joined by over 100 delegates including representatives from the Cayman Islands, a member of the Blue Belt, and MPs including Simon Jupp came along to show their support.
After a few drinks, the speeches started. We heard from the Leader of the Commons and CFOTO Patron, Penny Mordaunt. Brandishing a large fluffy penguin, Penny Mordaunt expressed her support for the campaign and thanked those in the room for their dedication to protecting our oceans, describing how it has been Conservatives who have been the ones to implement programmes like the Blue Belt in government, proving nay-sayers wrong.
We also heard from the Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey, who recommitted the UK to leading on global ocean protection. She described how the UK was a leader in negotiations for the recent High Seas Treaty, as well as talking through Defra’s recent successes and current work on ocean plastics and creating highly protected marine areas around the UK.
We came away from the conference feeling buoyed by the positivity of the conversations we had, the speeches made, and the enthusiasm shown for the Blue Belt, and its penguins. Now back from Manchester, it’s time to act.
The government has a new opportunity to strengthen the Blue Belt. The five-yearly review of the SGSSI marine protected area is underway and a decision will need to be made soon about whether or not to strengthen protections in the region. Working with the SGSSI government, UK ministers can take a huge step to protect these waters and the marine life that inhabits them.
If the enthusiasm exhibited by Conservative conference goers for the Blue Belt and for protecting Great British penguins is anything to go by, this should be a popular decision for the government to make.
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