World Oceans Day requires all our attention

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Conservative backbencher and climate campaigner Selaine Saxby spoke at the Westminster Hall debate on World Oceans Day

The Earth is a blue marble – over 70% of its surface is covered by water – and the algae that live on the surface account for over 50% of the oxygen we breathe. The ocean has so far absorbed one third of all human-created emissions and regulates our climate.  Our oceans are too big and too important to be just the domain of MPs like myself who are blessed with a constituency where they lap ashore – they are home to some 228,450 known species and another two million yet unknown. It is the main source of protein for more than a billion people.

The United Nations’ World Oceans Day is a celebration of the potential of our sea – and this year’s theme is “Life and Livelihood”.

Globally, fishing supported some 39 million jobs in 2018 and the UK’s fishing industry alone is worth almost £1 billion to our economy.  In my North Devon constituency, many local businesses and families rely on the maritime economy and we need to revert to sustainable fishing practices to ensure we use these precious resources in the best way possible.  Additional jobs, fish and associated economic benefit could be derived if our fish stocks were restored to their maximum sustainable yield.

Conservative governments have led the way for the UK to become a global ocean champion with our extensive network of Marine Protected Areas, but we could make use of our post Brexit freedoms to ban bottom trawling – research suggests emissions from bottom trawling alone could be as high as from UK agriculture. 

But why does this matter?  Our seabeds are significant carbon stores, or sinks. When they are disturbed by bottom trawling or dredging or even anchors thrown overboard the stored carbon becomes resuspended in the water and potentially escapes back into the atmosphere as CO2.  

Over 200 million tonnes of this blue carbon is stored on the UK’s ocean floor – a third more than held in our entire stock of standing forests.

The role of coastal and marine habitats in drawing down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing in seabed sediment, seaweeds, saltmarshes and seagrass beds has been somewhat neglected. Increasing blue carbon habitats can result in a reduction of carbon in our atmosphere whilst reducing the disturbance of the seabed ensures it remains stored.

As a Marine Conservation Society Blue Carbon Champion, I believe if we are to meet net zero by 2050 we must consider blue carbon as part of the solution, not to mention integrating it into our carbon accounts, and along with other Honourable Members I recently wrote to Lord Deben, Chair of the Climate Change Committee, to ask him to look into the feasibility of making this happen.

My North Devon constituency is home to the first UNESCO Biosphere and this is the 50th anniversary of the Man and Biosphere programme. Our world-leading Biosphere has a wide range of ongoing projects, including those investing in seaweeds, seagrass and saltmarshes. I am truly fortunate that I spend my weekends in and on the sea surfing and gig rowing – I live and breathe the ocean.

Sir David Attenborough’s legendary Blue Planet brought the ocean into all of our living rooms – and we now need to link this passion to action to ensure it is there for future generations. It is no wonder that 85% of people in England and Wales consider marine protection personally important to them.

Take whales, for example. Not only are they delightful to watch when you are lucky enough to see them – they are also brilliant tacklers of climate change. Each great whale sequesters around 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide, on average, in their lifetime which is equivalent to the carbon sequestration of almost 1400 trees. We need to ensure we are all aware of the value of our oceans and what lives within them – and that whilst the benefits of rainforests are so widely taught – our oceans, and indeed Blue Carbon, are lacking from far too many curriculums.

Through leading the Global Ocean Alliance, and through its co-chairing of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, I am proud that the UK is pushing to protect at least 30% of the global ocean in Marine Protected Areas and other effective area-based conservative measures by 2030, a ‘30by30’ target, if you will.

It is great news that this morning the Government has announced plans to pilot Highly Protected Marine Areas in English waters, creating sites where all activities that could have a damaging effect on wildlife or marine habitats would be banned. The independent Benyon Review concluded that such HPMAs would have an important role in helping the marine ecosystem recover, and the Government has my full support in taking these steps.

Biodiversity is also crucial.  With 90% of big fish populations depleted, and 50% of coral reefs destroyed, we are taking more from the ocean than can be replenished. As the UN states when referencing World Oceans Day: To protect and preserve the ocean and all it sustains, we must create a new balance, rooted in true understanding of the ocean and how humanity relates to it. We must build a connection to the ocean that is inclusive, innovative, and informed by lessons from the past.

And connect to the ocean we must – I frequently collect litter on our beaches and am horrified by the volume of plastics – and also microplastics, and nurdles on North Devon’s beautiful beaches.

The tragic situation with a container ship in Sri Lanka last week catching fire and spilling its cargo into the ocean has rather bought nurdles to something of an unwanted fame– but highlights that we are indeed shipping these pellets around the world, in containers, that do end up in our seas – is this actually what we want?  And if we don’t, what are we going to do to change it?

Plastic pollution is visible, and tangible, and we feel we can do something about it by picking it up. But so much of what is going on in our oceans is not visible – sewage pollution is another challenge along my constituency coastline. I was one of the MPs to support Philip Dunne’s Sewage (Inland Waters) Bill and am delighted to see so much of this now incorporated into our landmark Environment Bill, which yesterday passed its Second Reading in the House of Lords. 

I also hope this will reduce my inbox as I have an abundance of emails from constituents linked to the Surfers Against Sewage campaign each time the water quality is reduced in North Devon and I very much hope further steps will be rapidly taken to reduce this discharge into our rivers, which ultimately reaches our oceans.

Blue carbon is part of the solution, not part of the problem when it comes to achieving net zero and I very much hope today’s debate will be a chance to focus not just on what we have already achieved, but also on how much more there is still to do to restore our oceans and to optimise their link to our lives and livelihoods.

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