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Dead sperm whale in The Wash, East Anglia, England. © CSIP-ZSL.

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UK government’s poor performance on the marine environment

One year ago, Environment Minister Rebecca Pow declared 2021 a ‘Marine Super Year’, stressing that the UK would use its COP26 presidency to lead calls to restore the marine environment to health, stating that global leadership started with ambition and delivery at home. Impressive words, but did they translate to action? Let’s take a look …

Moonlight with Mischief

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Keeping score

In response to this announcement, together with other UK environmental and wildlife NGOs, we published a scorecard setting out what needed to be achieved in 2021 to make it a ‘super year’ for UK seas. Then at the end of the year, we assessed the government’s progress on each area against our scorecard - you can see the scorecard at the end of this post.

The scorecard measured government action on urgent threats to the marine environment and included ocean recovery targets, offshore planning reforms, bycatch (accidental entanglement in fishing gear) and blue carbon (the carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems and in the bodies of marine wildlife such as whales).

Poor performance

The results are in and sadly 2021 was a missed opportunity with a widespread lack of meaningful action and progress too slow across many aspects of marine policy. Only two of our 17 proposals saw good progress:

  1. Positive announcements were made in June 2021 for Highly Protected Marine Area (HPMAs) pilot sites in English waters
  2. A legally binding State of Nature target was included in the new Environment Act to halt and begin to reverse the decline of nature by 2030.

Both of these were very welcome, but progress on the designation of HPMAs has been slow and no shortlist of pilot sites has been published. In addition, the government still hasn’t taken up the opportunity to reform the UK Marine Strategy, a legal framework designed to monitor and manage human activity in UK waters, missing 11 out of 15 targets in the last assessment in 2020 and not having achieved good environmental status (GES) by 2020.

The new State of Nature target needs to be integrated into the Marine Strategy and wider marine policy to ensure that at least 30% of seas are fully or highly protected by 2030 (this is called 30x30).

WDC at the climate march in Glasgow
WDC at the climate march in Glasgow

Beyond COP26

The UK played a leading role at COP26 in Glasgow and deserves credit for its work to elevate the ocean in the climate discussions. The Glasgow Climate Pact recognised the ‘critical role’ of nature, including the ocean, in climate change adaptation and mitigation. But despite the increased government interest in blue carbon, there has been insufficient action to protect key blue carbon habitats within the UK from increasing human pressures.

Net inaction

Another area of little progress is tackling the bycatch of species such as whales and dolphins in fishing gear. We need clear targets for continual reductions in the number of deaths to ultimately reduce bycatch to the occasional tragic accident across UK fisheries. A ‘Bycatch Mitigation Initiative’ is now promised for publication in 2022. This would be a helpful initiative if it urgently establishes a programme to increase testing and deployment of alternative, safer fishing gear and effective prevention measures at the fleet level. However, we doubt that it will include the strong measures necessary.

This porpoise washed up in Dorset after dying in a fishing net © CSIP-ZSL
This porpoise washed up in Dorset after dying in a fishing net © CSIP-ZSL

Effective at-sea monitoring of fishing activity and bycatch reporting needs to be improved to ensure that all fishing activity is fully documented using adequate numbers of human observers and/or Remote Electronic Monitoring (REM). The UK needs robust bycatch prevention plans that are enforceable and contain the detail required to meet the ‘ecosystem objective’ of the UK Fisheries Act (2020) which is a legal requirement for the UK and devolved governments to ‘reduce and ultimately eliminate sensitive species bycatch’.

Wind failure

The UK has ambitious targets for offshore wind which warrant revising the marine planning system to deliver a clear hierarchy of decision making, making climate and nature the top priorities for consideration with any marine project. However, marine plans still urgently need to be updated to ensure that the cumulative environmental impacts of our increasing demands on the sea allow nature to recover at the same time as helping to mitigate climate breakdown. Marine plans are still not suited to help deliver the target of 40GW of offshore wind capacity by 2030 in a way that is compatible with nature’s recovery.

Rampion Offshore Wind Farm © Nicholas Doherty
Rampion Offshore Wind Farm © Nicholas Doherty

Time for action

As we begin 2022, we know that the year ahead could turn the tide for UK seas. The government has the power and tools to protect the precious marine life that inhabits UK waters and its stated ambitions for a Marine Super Year can still be achieved given sufficient political will. We call on the UK government to make 2022 a true marine super year by enacting the outstanding policies and becoming the world leader on marine issues it purports to be.

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