The success of the Blue Belts – thousands of square kilometres of Marine Protected Areas in the oceans around British Overseas Territories would be a “monumental achievement,” BLUE’s executive director, Charles Clover told an influential group of MPs at Westminster.
Areas like the MPA the size of the UK around Ascension Island were a huge commitment which if lived up to by Britain would be one of the greatest conservation achievements in the world, he said.
The Environmental Audit Committee was taking expert oral evidence to explore what progress the government has made towards achieving its manifesto commitment of achieving a Blue Belt around the 14 Overseas Territories.
Charles Clover said there was ten years work ahead and conversations were continuing with Ascension, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Bermuda, Gibraltar and others.
He told the MPs different things were achievable around different islands – often according to the size of their populations. “I don’t think it’s possible to put a percentage on how much we are achieving overall but I think we are doing better than the Foreign Office thought we would do.”
He said people in the OTs were able to have a clearer idea about what the opportunities were and what the biodiversity gains might be because there wasn’t the thicket of agencies and bureaucracy that there was in the UK.
He told the committee that initially there had been reluctance from many OTs to the proposed MPAs but that they had realised that Blue Belts were an opportunity to do something that many of their populations wanted.
It was now realised by many OT leaders that the MPAs attracted funding from scientific bodies, NGOs, foundations and others and that they had in fact created pots into which money could be thrown. On Ascension after 50 per cent opposition to the MPA, four out of five councillors now thought it was not such a bad idea.
But Charles Clover told the MPs: “We should start joining up government to do more to help them like making their economies more able to absorb tourists to bring revenue in to compensate them from their lack of income from rapacious fishing.” He added that the OTs should be given re-assurances that government funding would continue after 2020 and that the EU’s £1million to them a year would be replaced.
The MPS also explored how stakeholders had been engaged in the first two tranches of MPAs round UK shores. Charles Clover said groups of local people should put together alliances to draw up management plans for each to create a vision and create funding.
He said BLUE had put together a scheme based on sustainability and traceability in Lyme Bay which had seen local fishermen’s earnings increase between 20 and 30 per cent for fishing less because London restaurants were willing to pay top prices for the fish.
The committee asked what the likely effects of Britain leaving the EU would be on marine conservation. Charles Clover said that in our membership of the regional fisheries management organizations Britain had been giving in to the two most rapacious fishing fleets in Europe, those of France and Spain, for too long.
Leaving the EU could, he said, allow us to exert power at what the Foreign Secretary calls ‘global Britain’ to staff up the science and policy of the regional fisheries management organisations which managed the fishing effort over vast areas of the world’s open oceans. These were decisions that the government had to make soon.
See the film of Charles Clover addressing the Environmental Audit Committee here. (Scroll to 11:16:50).