A pilot whale died off the coast of Thailand a week ago today. It had swallowed some 80 plastic bags, completely clogging its digestive system, and rightly made headlines around the world. In Thai waters alone, a marine animal dies almost every day due to eating plastic waste in the sea; I dread to think what the situation is like elsewhere. We now have a situation so commonplace, it rarely makes the news.
One week on and we are marking World Oceans Day, whose focus this year is preventing plastic pollution and encouraging solutions for a healthy ocean. Although we are too late the save the Thai pilot whale, we can and we are taking action to help protect marine habitats in Britain’s coastal waters.
Today, this government is setting out plans for 41 new Marine Conservation Zones around the UK, almost doubling their present number. We are also proposing to add new protections to 12 existing sites, including Chesil Beach in Dorset and our only known coral reef, the Canyons, in the South West Deeps. This will be the most significant expansion of our ‘Blue Belt’ of protected marine areas to date, adding an area almost eight times the size of Greater London and protecting 40 percent of English waters.
Our waters hold some pretty spectacular sea life – for now. We have the near-threatened short-snouted seahorse, which can be found both off the coast of north-western Scotland, as well as in a few colonies in the River Thames. Or the stalked jellyfish, which appear upside down to blend in with the seagrass they live in all their lives. And peacock’s-tail seaweed, which used to be found in rock pools along the south coast of England and onto the Pembrokeshire coast in Wales, but is now rapidly disappearing, and has recently only been recorded in Dorset, Devon and the Isle of Wight.
These Marine Conservation Zones will prevent or restrict new activities deemed damaging to the sea life within them. This includes dredging, threatening to dislodge peacock’s-tail seaweed and the habitats of stalked jellyfish, or trawling nets along the bottom of the seabed, which might pick up short-snouted seahorses as bycatch.
But it’s not just these protected species. This Conservative government is working to ensure our entire marine environment has a healthy and sustainable future. We have worked to prevent overfishing, which has led to fishing beyond capacity, and has already claimed up to 90 percent of the ocean’s big fish. The largest trawl nets today can be the size of four football pitches, trapping more than 1,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises every day. We can also restrict coastal or offshore development which would negatively impact on these otherwise safe havens for sea life.
Our 50 existing Marine Conservation Zones, established over the last five years, are already making a difference. Fisheries management measures introduced in Lyme Bay & Torbay have led to improvements in the conservation status of reefs in the area, and increased sizes and volumes of fish have been recorded.
But it’s also clear we cannot hope to make any progress by next year’s World Oceans Day without help. Our Prime Minister, Theresa May, is bringing this issue to today’s G7 summit in Canada. Our oceans connect us, and their plight should unite us in action.
Following Greenpeace’s revelation yesterday that plastic pollution has contaminated even the waters around the Antarctic – an area with incredible seabed diversity despite its remote location and extreme environment – Britain’s leadership on this global challenge is more important than ever.
I hope our Marine Conservation Zones, and their positive effect on the world below sea level, can be the start of a global solution to this tragic crisis.
Henry Smith is the Conservative MP for Crawley and Patron of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation