UK pledges to protect 30 per cent of oceans by 2030

With only 3.7 per cent of the world’s oceans designated Marine Protected Areas, there are huge swathes of marine habitat at risk from pollution, overfishing and climate change. Now, campaigners have welcomed a UN pledge to drastically increase ocean protection over the next decade.

Divers explore damaged coral in the ocean
Divers explore damaged coral in the ocean
Kate Nicholson

The UK has given its support to the goal of making 30 per cent of the world’s oceans into Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2030, a challenging feat which has been announced as a United Nations priority.

Increasing support for ocean conservation is being discussed this week at the UN General Assembly in New York, which will attempt to provide the marine environment with a ‘buffer’ against the damaging effects of climate change, plastic pollution and human activity such as mining and fishing.

Michael Gove, UK Environment Secretary, said: "Protection of our oceans is a global challenge which requires global action. The UK has already safeguarded vast swathes of precious marine habitats, but we must go further. Only by working together can we protect our shared home and ensure our marine life continues to be a source of awe and wonder for future generations."

Currently, only 3.7 per cent of the world’s oceans are designation as MPAs, although the UN has a target of protecting 10 per cent by 2020 under the Convention of Biological Diversity. Research has shown that the higher 30 per cent target, recommended by the World Parks Congress back in 2014, is the minimum amount of protection required to achieve ocean management goals and benefit both fishing communities and biodiversity.

Endurance swimmer Lewis Pugh, who recently swam 328 miles (528 kilometres) along the English Channel in support of increasing current measures of ocean protection, has welcomed news that the 2020 world target is being extended. He told Sky News: “This is a very, very exciting moment. It’s what I’ve been calling for the full 49 days of this swim.

“If this is supported by other nations and followed through, it will be the most important moment for ocean conservation in history.”

Pugh continued: "What struck me [on the swim] was how little I saw in terms of wildlife. I saw a few birds, I saw a few dolphins, I saw one turtle and not much else… Be under no illusions – our oceans are in crisis”.

Are MPAs enough?

It has been suggested, however, that the action of creating MPAs is not enough by itself, as whole ecosystems need to be protected – potentially through measures to prohibit fishing entirely in these areas. Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation at York University, said: “I would love to see a ban on fishing in our MPAs. But at the very least we need bans on bottom trawling and dredging because of the damage they do to the seabed.”

The Green Party has shown its support for Gove’s pledge, but also believes that MPAs alone will not resurrect our oceans. Co-leader Jonathan Bartley, who called on Gove to push for greater marine protection, described the announcement as a “victory for campaigners”, saying: “It’s good to see the government willing to take a lead in looking after the world’s oceans. The plastic crisis, climate change and overfishing are putting our oceans in jeopardy and we need strong protections like this if we are to stand any chance of safeguarding them for the future.

“The Environment Secretary has shown he is willing to listen to scientists and activists, and now he must create marine conservation zones to protect marine life in British seas."

36 per cent of the waters off England’s coasts are safeguarded as MPAs in what is known as the ‘Blue Belt’, while in 2016, the government announced plans to create four million square kilometre of protected marine environment in UK Overseas Territories.

Turning coastal areas into marine conservation zones would be a step up from simply designating them as MPAs. Conservation zones are a type of MPA in UK waters that aim to protect nationally important, rare or threatened habitats and species, ensuring habitats are monitored and managed to allow marine ecosystems to recover from pollution. Currently, less than 0.1 per cent of UK continental shelf waters are closed to fishing and extraction.

In the June, to coincide with World Oceans Day, proposals were announced that could see 41 more marine conservation zones introduced within British waters, to protect species such as the short-snouted seahorse and the beluga whale.