The UK needs to redouble efforts to conserve marine life now it has taken back control of its territorial waters, one of the world’s leading ocean scientists has told Sky News.
Dr Enric Sala, explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society and the author of a new study on marine protection, said the UK has an opportunity to protect its seas following Brexit – and a responsibility to do so as the host of the UN climate conference later this year.
“For the UK, after Brexit, there is no excuse,” he said.
“It has to decide whether to continue with business as usual and see the decline of fisheries and the livelihoods they support, or to regenerate UK waters and start a blue economy that is good for the environment and the people of the UK.”
Dr Sala is one of 26 leading scientists who collaborated on the most comprehensive report to ever focus on the importance of marine protection in preventing climate change, protecting biodiversity – and, at the same time, increasing the catch of fish.
He said three-quarters of marine-protected areas in the UK allow fishing, including destructive trawling on the sea bottom.
Dr Sala said: “This does not make any sense. An area that allows big boats to plough the bottom of the ocean and destroy everything there – that should not be called a protected area.”
The government is consulting on plans to fully protect four areas of UK waters, but conservationists say far more needs to be done.
Currently just 7% of the world’s oceans are protected – with a complete ban on destructive activities such as fishing, drilling and mining in just 3%.
The new analysis, published in the Nature journal, shows the conservation zones protect just 2% of the world’s endangered marine species.
But that could be increased to more than 80% if protected areas were expanded to cover 21% of the most critical hotspots of the ocean.
Coastal seas and the waters around underwater ridges and plateaus are the richest areas for marine life, and top the list for protection.
Climate change could also be abated by restrictions on fishing, the report suggests.
Trawlers drag heavy nets across 1.9 million square miles of the seabed each year to catch plaice and other flat fish, as well as shellfish such as scallops.
But they stir up the silt, releasing around a billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year from dead plants and animals that were buried long ago.
That’s roughly the same as the emissions from flying.
The study shows banning “bottom trawling” from 4% of the ocean would stop 90% of the problem.
Dr Trisha Atwood of Utah State University, another of the researchers, said the impact of fishing on the climate crisis can’t be ignored.
She explained: “The ocean floor is the world’s largest carbon storehouse.
“If we are to succeed in stopping global warming, we must leave the carbon-rich seabed undisturbed.
“Yet every day we are trawling the seafloor, depleting its biodiversity and mobilising millennia-old carbon.”
Fishing communities have in the past resisted strict marine protection, but the study shows they too would benefit from conservation zones.
Stocks of commercial species of fish would sharply increase in just three years, spilling over into neighbouring unprotected areas.
In all, the annual catch of fish could increase by six million tonnes, the study suggests.
The United Nations is urging countries to sign up to an agreement this year to give strict protection to 30% of the ocean by 2030.
Research shows the marine life is hugely resilient. Within a decade, fish numbers can increase 600% with proper protection.
Dr Boris Worm, of Dalhousie University in Canada, and one of the researchers, said: “Smart ocean protection will help to provide cheap natural climate solutions, make seafood more abundant and safeguard imperilled marine species – all at the same time.
“The benefits are clear. If we want to solve the three most pressing challenges of our century – biodiversity loss, climate change and food shortages – we must protect our ocean.”