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The Next UK Government Must Finish The Job Of Protecting Our Oceans

04/05/2017 16:19
Maltaguy1 via Getty Images

2016 was a special year in the world of ocean conservation. Governments around the globe finally seemed to wake up to the scale of the threat facing our oceans. In the space of just a few months, the surface of the world's oceans that is protected more than doubled, and countries everywhere, from the UK to New Zealand, began to propose bans on microbeads.

It was a year when it suddenly felt as though we were moving in the right direction, towards the huge international effort needed to preserve and protect our blue planet. With more than three billion people depending on the oceans for food, we don't have much choice in the matter.

It is perhaps an understatement to say that our oceans have seen better times. Rising temperatures, overfishing and the blight of plastic pollution are all growing problems, the full scale of which is yet to be grasped. As our understanding of these problems grows, so too does our understanding of how incredible oceans are at supporting life on earth. Without the oceans not only would nearly half the world go hungry, but the impacts of climate change would almost certainly be many, many times worse.

Successive UK governments have understood this and taken important action when necessary. Whether it was the historic ruling by Judge Cranston declaring the fish in British waters to be a common good, not belonging to any individual or company (in a judicial review where Greenpeace teamed up with the Government against the vested interests of the fishing industry). Or the impressive legacy of the UK Government in lobbying other countries to uphold the global moratorium on whaling, which is increasingly under threat from pro-whaling nations. Or even the recent announcement of the Government's intention to ban microbeads.

The UK has a long history of rising to the occasion and leading the way on ocean conservation when it really matters. It has never mattered more than now.

The next few years are vital for the oceans. If we want to keep this crucial resource in a healthy state, feeding billions and staying strong in the face of climate change, we need ambitious action. Whoever is elected must prioritise international leadership to protect globally significant marine species and habitats in the high seas, our overseas territories and around our own coast. The UK is responsible for vast areas of ocean and holds great influence in international bodies governing the oceans - we need to see ambitious plans for protection as a matter of urgency.

With the whaling moratorium coming under increasing threat, it is also of the utmost importance that the UK continues to play a leading role in championing the global conservation of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Throughout the referendum debate, the plight of Britain's local fishing communities was a topic of much discussion. It is up to the next Government to ensure British fishermen and seas get a good deal after Brexit.

Whether it's making sure that the best of European legislation to protect our beaches and bathing water are transferred into UK law, or ensuring that fisheries legislation has a legally binding requirement to follow the best available science when setting fishing quotas - there is a lot to be done in the next two years if our coastal communities are to get the best out of the future they voted for.

One key way that this could be done would be to re-evaluate who is fishing what and where, and give a larger share of fishing rights to those who benefit the local community whilst fishing in a sustainable way.

Finally, the media this year has gone plastic mad. We're only just beginning to understand the scale of the plastic pollution in our oceans and the impact it is having on wildlife and, potentially, human health. The next Government must champion businesses offering sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic packaging and make sure that ambitious litter and waste management plans which incentivise preventing the problem at source are implemented nationally.

Britain remains a significant power on the global stage, especially in relation to ocean conservation, and it is essential that the next Government upholds this fine tradition and pushes ahead with the most ambitious plan to protect the oceans the world has ever seen.

It's been done before - through designating our overseas territories as marine reserves, fighting hard for important reforms to the Common Fisheries Policy, and putting an end to commercial whaling. It would be foolish to end this amazing track record now.

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