Introducing guest contributor Harry Baker
Harry Baker is a marine biology graduate from the University of Exeter. He is an animal lover, conservation enthusiast and budding scientific journalist. He writes about all things ocean related in his blog Marine Madness. To see more of his work you can follow him on twitter @harryjpbaker.
As the situation surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU becomes more confusing than ever we are still unsure how it will affect the UK. Join guest contributor Harry Baker and he discusses what Brexit means for UK marine life and their ability to protect it.
As much as you may want to, there is just no escaping it. If you turn on any news channel in the UK the first word that is likely to flash up is yes you guessed it, Brexit. It is a subject that has dominated the media cycle for months and is likely to continue to do so for the foreseeable future. Whether you are for remain, leave or just completely fed up of listening to other people argue about it, what happens next will affect just about everything in our lives. But what are the implications for marine conservation and research in the UK and abroad? Regardless of political beliefs, everyone should be in agreement that our oceans today are under severe stress from human factors and in desperate need of our help. Whilst it may not feel like it, Brexit could be a blessing in disguise and give us a chance to become world leaders in protecting the marine world.
Marine conservation in the UK is currently at a reasonably good level compared to the rest of the world but that could all be about to change with Brexit. Since joining the EU in 1973, we have worked closely with our European neighbours to strengthen marine conservation throughout our shared continental waters. As a result we now rely on the EU for key funding for both marine conservation and research and are part of several key agreements to protect marine life. Now due to Brexit we will lose the vital funding, collaboration and legislation needed to maintain our current level of ocean protection. It is therefore very important that we work hard to re-establish lost funding and legislation and continue to work closely with all our global partners. But it also gives us a potential opportunity to improve on our marine conservation framework and lead the rest of the world by setting an unprecedented example.
But with all the uncertainty and issues surrounding Brexit why should marine conservation be a priority? Well, the reason is that it will benefit us to do so, both economically and ecologically. One of the main concerns around Brexit is damage to our economy and that is a very understandable worry. But healthy oceans lead to economic benefits, particularly in supporting coastal communities, through fishing and tourism. It is therefore in our best interests to protect this vital resource to help economically support these local areas. Healthy oceans are also vital to maintaining healthy ecosystems on land. Everything is connected, especially in nature, and although people don’t realise it, damage to the marine world will lead to knock-on effects to us. One example is how the oceans protect us from the effects of climate change. Phytoplankton and the marine food web absorb as much carbon dioxide as trees and forests do which is key in reducing the effects of global warming. We have currently seen a one degree rise in global air temperature but without the oceans absorbing carbon dioxide, we would have already experienced a much greater rise.
If we are going to maintain a high level of marine conservation post-Europe, it will require a number of things to happen. Firstly we will need to replace the EU legislation we lose during Brexit as fast as possible. This means setting sustainable fishing quotas, establishing a network of marine protected areas that remain effective, and making sure we continue to support European initiatives even though we will not be legally obliged to do so. We will also need to replace the funding for marine conservation that is currently provided by the EU. Currently, between 10 -25% of funding for British marine organisations comes from the EU. This will need to be made up by the UK government or a deal negotiated with Europe to make sure funding does not slip. At the moment we also rely heavily on the European court of justice to settle disputes over marine conservation and will need to find an alternative to ensure continued enforcement of rules and regulations.
It is also important that we maintain and where possible strengthen relationships with other countries, especially in Europe. While we will have control over our own waters, most issues facing our oceans today are on a global scale. Climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution are all problems that can only be successfully tackled by working with other nations. As well as conservation, we also need to work with the rest of the world to continue the fantastic marine research we do in the UK. Universities and other organisations in Britain currently produce some of the best marine research anywhere on the planet. But that is only possible by collaborating internationally with other institutions and employing the best scientists from around the world. We will need to allow this to happen moving forward if we are to continue to produce meaningful research.
But why stop there? The opportunity to set our own laws and make new commitments means we could go even further. One way we could do this is by setting truly sustainable fishing quotas to prevent ecological effects from overfishing. Another is to reduce our impact on climate change by switching solely to renewable energy. There will also be an opportunity to increase the number of marine protected areas we have and prevent other nations from exploiting our waters. The UK could also use conservation as a way of forming new alliances across the globe. We have the capacity to aid developing countries to implement their own framework and policies. This would enhance our reputation abroad and could inspire a wave of global change as well as put pressure on other top nations to follow our lead.
A fantastic example of how we can lead the world in marine conservation is by implementing the Blue Belt Charter. Britain’s influence around the world may have diminished over the last century but we still have lots of overseas territories scattered around. The Blue Belt Charter is an ambitious plan to protect the waters of these territories which could spark change on a global scale. The idea comes from the Great British Oceans coalition which includes groups such as the Marine Conservation Society (UK), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Zoological Society of London, and Greenpeace to name a few. They aim to create 4 million km2 of new marine protected areas by the end of 2020 across 14 locations including in the British Indian Ocean Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, British Antarctic Territory, Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. The plan was supported by 280 MPs in 2017 and has already been successful in some areas. This initiative could thrive post-Brexit and will mean our influence in marine conservation will truly be felt around the world.
Whatever your opinions on Brexit, it comes at a time when the world’s oceans hang in the balance. If things do not change soon then we will do irreversible damage to the Earths most important ecosystem. In the UK we have a unique opportunity to re-write the rulebook and lead the way in marine conservation. But what happens next is crucial and we have to be willing to seize the chance before it’s too late. If we want to continue to have a global influence post-Brexit what better way to do it than to inspire a wave of change in how we treat the marine world.