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Brexit and the 83%: What future for wider UK seas?

 

The below is a short version of a speech I’m giving on Brexit to today’s Coastal Futures conference, the leading annual UK conference on marine and coastal issues.

You’ve heard a lot about the 48% and the 52% in the EU Referendum aftermath. I want to throw in another percentage: 83%. That’s the rough percentage of UK seas that aren’t covered by marine protected areas (MPAs). I say “rough” as noone seems to have an exact figure. That’s about three quarters of a million square kilometres of living, breathing, three-dimensional marine space. These are the areas being most intensively used, finite ecosystems facing ever growing competition in the quest for so-called sustainable development.

So what future for these ecosystems in a post-EU UK? To help answer this question, WWF has released a new briefing paper entitled “The Future of UK Seas“. It contains the key things we want to see as the UK prepares to leave the EU in order to safeguard and restore our precious coasts and oceans. It’s a great little read!

WWF Briefing Future of UK Seas A4WWF Briefing, “The Future of UK Seas” January 2017

So what does it say?

For one thing, it says that we already have good pieces of legislation for the wider marine environment at both EU and UK level, which have been in place for many years. EU standards on assessing the impacts of human activities are tried and tested and we have new systems of planning at sea, such as in England, to allocate space to activities.

I see no great desire from anyone to mess with these pieces of legislation. They are tried and tested, understood by both stakeholders and decision-makers. They aren’t always implemented as well as they could be from our point of view, but that is not necessarily the fault of the legislation.

So I hope that we can ‘bank’ these marine regulations, whatever form of Brexit and whatever legal jiggery-pokery the Government decides, without opening them up to change. If it ain’t broke, don’t try to fix it. And frankly, to do so would be an unnecessary distraction to other larger issues surrounding Brexit in a world where we desperately need stability and certainty. We do though need to be mindful to ensure that the compliance and reporting aspects of these regulations are not lost in the process.

Staying positive

But we can’t just manage further decline. Andrea Leadsom has been very clear: it’s Defra’s vision to “leave the environment better than when we found it“. This is great to hear. Could this be an opportunity to reverse the long-term declines that the State of Nature and Living Planet Reports both show?

We also need to use the space that the Brexit debate brings to talk about real opportunities for positive action to restore UK seas. To give you a flavour, here are three brief ideas:

  • Firstly, we need to improve marine plans in a way that recognises that a healthy environment is the basis of healthy societies and economies at sea. We’re getting there slowly, but we could look to countries such as Estonia, Sweden and Latvia, which use planning at sea to start a debate about areas outside of MPAs, but which are still important for the overall health of the ecosystem, and give them prominence through planning.
  • Secondly, we need to talk much more how to restore marine ecosystems for future generations. There are positive signals here: a 25yr plan for the Environment could set an ambitious target for recovery, while in Wales the Environment and Well-being of Future Generations Acts are exciting pieces of domestic legislation that if integrated properly with the Marine Act could really be gamechangers for Welsh Seas.
  • Finally, we need to champion the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive and build a future for it in the UK.

The MSFD is the framework for bringing all the work we do at sea together in the pursuit of a better environment. If the Celtic Seas Partnership has shown anything, it’s that stakeholders can and will come together to discuss ways to improve the marine region they care about, framed by the MSFD.  In future, such a holistic way of thinking may well be needed more than ever.

These are just some ideas. Look our for future blogs which will go into more detail on other issues, such as fisheries and MPAs. Thanks for reading!

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