Saving the oceans in a time of crisis

A just transition to a sustainable economy must cater to the people who live on the ocean shores around the world, a wide-ranging discussion at Green Party Spring Conference concluded. Matthew Hull reports.

Matthew Hull

Bob Roberts calls himself an “unlikely environmentalist”. After a career working in the nuclear, oil and gas sectors, his interest in environmental concerns was triggered in 2012 by the rupturing of a waste pipeline from big local employer McCain in his native Scarborough. Since then, Roberts has become one of Scarborough’s most vocal champions for cleaning up the local waters.

At Sunday’s panel discussion at the Green Party’s Spring Conference 2019 (7-10 June), Roberts outlined how he is just one part of a far broader coalition that includes interest groups, academics, community campaigners, and local businesspeople. Their aim is a flourishing marine environment.

There is a long way to go: Scarborough’s North Bay has lost its Blue Flag Award for water quality, tourism has suffered and local fishing yields are down. Roberts described what he saw as the “indifference, incompetence and ignorance” of authorities in local government, the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water (which owns the ruptured pipeline) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Each spent valuable resources fighting campaigners, resources that could have been spent tackling the problem they were bringing to attention.

But the problem stretches far beyond the beautiful landscape of Scarborough. Dr Cath Waller, a marine biologist, told us that climate change is having a monumental impact on all forms of marine life. By fundamentally altering existing patterns of feeding and breeding, climate change will unbalance ecosystems.

Litter on a beach
Litter on a beach
Plastic litter is one of the biggest threats to the ocean environment


Plastics are a further threat; each year, eight million tonnes of plastic reaches our oceans, largely invisible as 97 per cent soon disappears beneath the surface. The impact of plastic pollution on the charismatic megafauna of the ocean is well-documented, thanks in large part to the BBC’s Blue Planet II. Yet the effects of microplastics, not to mention the chemical byproducts of plastic decomposition, are poorly understood.

The problem of pollution is international, and highly political. Panellists were quick to highlight the hypocrisy of industrialised nations towards the Global South, since indigenous peoples and developing nations bear the brunt of environmental catastrophe the world over.

When it comes to global management of the oceans, the story is depressingly familiar. Dr Magnus Johnson, self-described “prawnographer” and, in his spare time, a marine scientist at the University of Hull, noted that Australia maintains and enforces a strong regulatory environment to protect its fisheries. Yet it imports 70 per cent of fish products from surrounding countries with weak, poorly enforced regulations.

Indigenous peoples and developing nations bear the brunt of environmental catastrophe the world over

Similarly, the European Union maintains a unified regulatory framework for its fisheries, and has seen stocks of certain species recover since the 1970s as a result. But it has simultaneously exacerbated the global problem, using international trade agreements to buy up fishing rights in developing nations such as the Seychelles for exploitation by large transnational corporations.

From Scarborough to the South China Sea, the necessity of confronting corporations and the governments that enable their abuses became strikingly clear in the hall at Conference. Party members were united behind the ‘polluter pays’ principle: that responsibility for rectifying abuses must ultimately lie with the polluting actor, and that policymakers must ensure communities do not pay the cost with a reduced standard of living. The ‘just transition’ to a sustainable economy must be funded by those profiting from the products they sell.

In order to take on polluters and their enablers in government – and win – coastal communities must become key members of our climate coalition. McCain has provided a consistent source of much-needed employment to Scarborough over a difficult half-century. In the absence of a better offer (some sort of New Deal, perhaps?) and with successive governments unwilling to lead direct investment, even this kind of industry can look attractive.

Yet coastal towns deserve better than this Hobson’s choice. Panellists agreed that it was up to the climate movement to deliver a just transition, one that can win and maintain the support of communities that work most closely with our oceans.

Years of austerity have impacted the seas and the communities living on their shores. Oceanographer Dr Rodney Forster described how austerity in public spending has critically impaired the ability of authorities such as the Environment Agency, Defra and the Marine Management Organisation to survey our oceans. The data they provide are vital to inform policy decisions; they must be properly funded.

Years of austerity have impacted the seas and the communities living on their shores

However, proud “ocean optimist” Dr Magnus Johnson pointed to positive signs: rewilding efforts (such as the reintroduction of oyster reefs into suitable estuaries like the Humber) and seaweed cultivation (planned for Scarborough in the coming months). For Johnson, the limits of ‘passive’ ocean protections ought to be widely recognised. For example, new Marine Conservation Zones are effective in protecting coral reefs, but the evidence base for these in temperate climes is very flimsy. In many fishing locations, they seem instead to intensify fishing in adjacent areas, to the detriment of their marine life.

And there are further concerns about how they fit with the needs of local people.

Few cases are as horrifying as the case of the British-controlled Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean. In 2013, a leaked US diplomatic cable from 2009 exposed the UK’s continuing abuse of the indigenous Chagos islanders, who had been forcibly removed from their land in the 1960s to make way for a US military base on the largest island, Diego Garcia.

Diego Garcia Atoll, Chagos Archipelago


As a British Foreign Office official remarked, the Chagos islanders “would find it difficult, if not impossible, to pursue their claim for resettlement on the islands if the entire Chagos Archipelago were a marine reserve.” The creation of the Chagos Marine Protected Area in 2010 looks to have been established for all the wrong reasons: to protect US and UK strategic defence interests against those who call the islands home.

Such examples of conservation with no regard for human rights demonstrate that an international outlook is indispensable if any climate movement is to be truly liberatory. The audience was left in no doubt that a just transition must have every ocean in its sights. Those of us in industrialised nations must hold our governments closely to account.