The high seas are inherently lawless places. The very term conjures up images of pirates or sea monsters from children’s books. Yet they make up nearly fifty percent of the surface area of the Earth. If we consider the depth of the ocean, we must also conclude that they make up more than half of the Earth’s habitable space. We rely on the ocean for food, transport routes and carbon sequestration. Nearly a third of all human-created carbon emissions have been absorbed by the ocean, but so far, all efforts to protect this incredible asset have been unsuccessful.
It is a remarkable feat then that this week UN member states have finally agreed a historic deal to protect these high seas. Before these rules, the high seas were free for fishing, shipping and research. Unless, of course, it was a protected area, but as this covered barely 1% of the high seas, it was a pretty safe bet that you would be free to fish or ship as much as you wanted.
But now, the newly agreed UN’s High Seas Treaty will create huge marine protected areas, helping to protect marine life as well as introducing restrictions on sea mining. The agreement also included more money for marine conservation. The EU announced that it would be dedicating 820 million euros (£722m) to supporting marine conservation.
This is fantastic news, made all the better when one considers the amount of time dedicated to getting an agreement over the line. I remember asking a written question about international marine protected areas of the type established in this treaty as long ago as 2014. The actual negotiations for this treaty have taken nearly a decade, if you include the preparation for the treaty before formal talks commenced, it stretches to nearly two.
The implications for marine life are, on the face of it, tremendous. Protecting areas of our oceans will allow the many varied and wonderful species in the world’s oceans a respite from overfishing. Over time this may allow fish stocks to replenish themselves naturally and restore habitats. It may even restore fish stocks to the point they spill over into areas which allow fishing. Of course, we will also be able to learn more about species if they are within their natural habitat and are not being overfished or disturbed by international shipping traffic.
When you look deeper into this though, some questions will naturally emerge. The main issue is where exactly these marine protected areas will be sited. There will be pressure from the fishing industry to establish them in places which are not productive fishing areas – in other words, less biodiverse and nature-rich areas. Inevitably the interests of biodiversity and the interests of industry could clash here, and a compromise must be found that encompasses a wide range of ocean habitats.
There will also be pressure from the shipping industry, which will seek that major shipping routes are not designated for protection. Again we must find a compromise which enables shipping routes but also does not cut marine protected areas off from each other. Many marine species are migratory and will naturally move out of marine protected areas. It would be implausible to simply make these marine protected areas big enough to contain these migration patterns, just look at the tagged humpback whale, which was found to have travelled 19,000km in a year. Instead, we must make sure that there is some safe passage of travel for marine species between protected areas.
The UK should be proud of its part in this treaty. We have been a world leader in ocean conservation for quite some time, implementing the Blue Belt programme around overseas territories, which has led to 4 million sq km of ocean being protected. We spearheaded the Global Oceans Alliance to protect 30% of the oceans by 2030, which will not be achieved without this High Seas Treaty.
However, our leadership on the world stage must start from our leadership at home. The government’s recently announced sites for our first Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs), which go one step above Marine Protected Areas. But ministers designated three such areas, rather than the five that Lord Benyon’s review into the matter considered necessary to test their efficacy. I understand why two of the five proposed areas were rejected, and of course, we need to balance community interests with nature, but the government should be looking into new potential sites so that HMPAs are allowed a fair trial.
We should protect our own coast for nature properly or risk the absurd position that species that we fought for nearly two decades to protect on the high seas will end up as bycatch on UK shores.
First published by Politeia. Sir Oliver Heald MP (North East Hertfordshire) is a member of the Conservative Environment Network.