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We can turn the tide on the ocean emergency, but we must act now

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Leading ocean campaigner and director of Oceana UK Hugo Tagholm explores the threats facing our ocean and reasons for hope in the fight for thriving UK seas.

  • As our seas endure unprecedented heatwaves and are subjected to rampant oil and gas developments, they suffer like never before. 
  • Forty per cent of the latest round of North Sea oil and gas licences overlap with marine protected areas, and if approved would devastate habitats and wildlife vital to ocean health. 
  • Leadership is lacking with currently just 0.4% of England’s seas protected, but there is still hope if Government and industry act urgently. 

The blue of the ocean is calming, instantly boosting your mood when you gaze at the waves. But in recent heat maps of the north Atlantic, those calming blues have been turning an angry red as an extreme marine heatwave sent shock waves through ocean ecosystems.  

Global heating is now happening at what United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres has described as a “terrifying” rate, with scientists warning of mass mortality of marine wildlife as these underwater heatwaves ravage our ocean in the same way as wildfires take out vast areas of forest. 

Nature’s alarms are met with continued exploitation 

It is against this backdrop that we have witnessed our leaders’ abject failure to act.  

In the hottest June in the country since records began, the UK’s environment minister resigned, citing the Government’s “apathy” and “disinterest” in environmental issues; the ‘Retained EU Law Bill’ was pushed through without safeguards to prevent weakening nature protection; and Rosebank – the largest undeveloped oilfield in the North Sea – was deemed ‘likely’ to be approved for exploitation. 

In July, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak confirmed the Government will be issuing 100 new licences for North Sea oil and gas in the autumn. Forty percent of these licences are within marine protected areas, our investigation in collaboration with our partners Uplift has revealed. These regions are vital havens for our extraordinary sea life – calling an area ‘protected’ and then licensing these highly destructive developments is disingenuous ‘blue wash’. 

Not only would new developments cause vast amounts of CO2 emissions, hastening a climate breakdown that will decimate ocean wildlife and cost countless lives around the world, but it will also lock us into a dead-end industry that will leave workers stranded and the UK economy lagging. Despite this, Sunak defends the new licenses arguing they are “entirely consistent” with net zero commitments. 

Ocean health is critical in our fight against the climate crisis. It must be restored. Yet offshore oil and gas developments directly harm our already struggling marine ecosystems. Damage from drilling and pipelines will destroy extraordinary deep-sea sponge communities, ancient cold-water corals and more. A toxic cocktail of pollutants including neurotoxins, microplastic and, of course, oil itself will blight our internationally important marine wildlife, from seabirds to seals. 

The ‘Retained EU Law Bill’ could have enshrined nature protection laws that would have provided some safeguards against this kind of destruction, yet the Government stubbornly refused to write this into law, pushing back against sensible environmental safeguards put forward by the House of Lords.  

Reasons for hope 

Leadership is lacking, but we can still turn the tide and move towards thriving seas, a liveable climate and stable jobs. And we have seen inklings of progress. 

In July, Defra announced three new highly protected marine areas in England’s waters – great news. Strong scientific evidence shows that creating havens free from the pressures of exploitation boosts the whole ecosystem and helps create more secure livelihoods for coastal communities.  

The only downside is that these add up to just 0.4% of England’s seas. When the goal is to protect 30% of land and sea for nature by 2030, this is a drop in the ocean. 

On climate, the Labour Party’s policy to end new oil and gas developments in UK waters, if elected, was applauded by both climate and marine scientists and activists alike.  

In the run-up to the general election, all parties should be looking to the future, creating long-term strategies that can safeguard the UK’s astounding natural ecosystems and create a flourishing green economy. 

Our seas are central to this. If we put in place the right policies now, they can provide us with the home-grown, low-cost, sustainable energy we need, and thriving marine ecosystems that support coastal livelihoods from wildlife watching to fishing.  

Safeguarding our majestic ocean life, our coastal communities and our energy security should be reasons enough, but if the UK’s political parties need more: 80% of UK voters believe our ocean protection laws must be strengthened.  

It’s time to deliver action. 

The opinions of guest authors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of SG Voice.

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