Environmental Audit Committee: Biodiversity and Ecosystems inquiry evidence 2020

The evidence presented here for the Environmental Audit Committee’s Biodiversity and Ecosystems inquiry has been prepared by the Great British Oceans (GBO) coalition.

Since 2015, the Great British Oceans (GBO) coalition - Blue Marine Foundation, Greenpeace-UK, Marine Conservation Society (MCS), The Pew Trusts, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) - have worked alongside island communities, local government, and British Governmental departments to establish and enhance marine conservation in UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). Our Blue Belt Charter (see Appendix for details) is supported by 203 cross-party MPs from the current parliament, along with over 30 prominent international and domestic marine and environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs), eminent scientists and world-leading universities. 

GBO’s work is focused on UKOTs and the marine environment, so we have provided an answer to the following question from the Call for Evidence:

The UK is custodian of the fifth-largest marine estate in the world, and the UK and its OTs have shown global leadership by fully protecting over 30% of our waters. This has been supported by one of the UK’s most ambitious ever environment policies: The Blue Belt Programme. The Blue Belt supports delivery of the UK Government’s commitment to provide long-term protection of 4 million km2 of marine environment across the UKOTs in partnership with OT governments  - this represents almost 60% of the UK’s total 6.8 million km2 marine area. Funding for the Blue Belt is due to expire in March 2021 and GBO estimate that £7 million per annum is required from the UK Government 2021-24 in order to provide the necessary ongoing financial support for the UKOTs to continue to implement their marine protected areas (MPAs), while enabling new UKOTs to participate in the programme.

Blue Belt funding provides scientific support for UKOTs committed to large-scale marine protection (Ascension, British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT), Pitcairn, Tristan da Cunha, British Antarctic Territory, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Helena), which is intrinsically linked to providing monitoring and a level of management and enforcement within their exclusive economic zones (EEZs). These territories are home to globally significant biodiversity, from vast penguin colonies in the South Atlantic, to breeding grounds for humpback whales in the Pacific, to sea turtles in the Indian Ocean, and research on BIOT is repeatedly showing the value of fully protected, large MPAs to biodiversity.[1] Protecting these vast areas can also provide substantial climate change benefits, in terms of resilience, adaptation and mitigation.[2],[3],[4]

The impact of the funding should not be underestimated. Scientific baselines have been established and discoveries have been made which have led to the designation of almost 30% of the British marine estate in fully protected MPAs. Often the push for designating an MPA has been led by local island communities – for example, conservation efforts on Pitcairn, Ascension, Tristan da Cunha and St Helena. Data from the marine science programme on BIOT1 have formed a key part of several regional and global studies of coral reefs, which has only been possible because the presence of the MPA means there is no coastal over-fishing and development.[5],[6] This baseline evidence has enabled greater understanding and has the potential to enhance sustainable management plans in UKOTs – who wish to shield their marine environments from the combined pressures of industrial fishing, habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. Remote monitoring has also supported marine planning in the analysis phase of new MPAs, and post-designation ensuring protected areas are properly monitored and policed.

Some UKOTs yet to join the Blue Belt Programme, namely the five Caribbean territories and Bermuda, have significantly benefitted from other UK Government environmental funding streams, specifically Darwin Plus. This mechanism has provided a consistent source of crucial funds for environmental projects in the UKOTs, and has been a key driver for improving marine management in the Caribbean territories and Bermuda, enabling endangered species research and conservation, inshore MPA designation and management, habitat mapping and improved fisheries science.[7] Territory governments are however constrained by limited availability of staff and financial resources to manage their MPAs, in-turn hampering ability to mitigate the same pressures mentioned above. The impacts of COVID-19 have also amplified these threats while reducing UKOT capacity in mitigating them.[8] We therefore believe long-term Blue Belt investment to improve MPA management in most of these UKOTs will provide much-needed support in protecting key ecosystem services, further sustaining the blue economies of tourism and fishing that will be critical in post-COVID recovery.

There is growing scientific evidence that well-managed, strongly protected MPAs, in which little to no resource extraction takes place, will help marine ecosystems build resilience and allow humans to adapt to prominent impacts of climate change (e.g. intensification of storms and decreased productivity).[9],[10] There is also a growing body of evidence that well managed nearshore MPAs protecting habitats such as mangroves and seagrasses promote carbon sequestration and storage.[11] Furthermore, effective highly protected MPAs can help shield marine life from fishing and other anthropogenic pressures, increasing the capacity of marine ecosystems to withstand the ever more pervasive effects of climate change, including warming waters and increased ocean acidity. Accordingly, the highly and fully protected MPAs in UKOTs help to deliver British commitments to wider international agreements and initiatives, such as UN Sustainable Development Goal 14.5,[12] the CBD Aichi Target 11 and the forthcoming UN Decade of Ocean Science.[13]

The Blue Belt is crucial to the UK’s efforts to address biodiversity loss through international collaboration, since its success has enabled the UK to take an international leadership role in pushing for a new global 30 by 30 ocean target (to protect 30% of the world’s ocean by 2030) under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). 2020 was due to see a number of high-profile international environmental meetings, including negotiating the post-2020 biodiversity framework via the CBD, as well as a UN High Seas Treaty and the UN Climate COP. The UK created the Global Ocean Alliance in 2019 in support of achieving its goal of 30% ocean protection, and under its successful leadership the Alliance’s membership has expanded to 26 countries, including Germany, Italy and Canada.[14]

When talks resume in 2021, the UK’s role as a political leader in marine conservation will be important in these United Nations negotiations, as well as talks on protection of the Polar Regions and within a number of regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs), where the UK will now sit alongside the EU as an independent member. Maintaining the Blue Belt Programme underpins this international diplomatic leadership, which is a valuable form of partnership development on a global scale.

Funding for the Blue Belt is due to expire in March 2021, and failing to provide long-term financial support would isolate the UKOTs from critical scientific research, capacity building and monitoring and enforcement of MPAs. Together, these have afforded the UKOTs and the UK Government the opportunity to protect critical environments whilst encouraging the international community to do the same.

Cutting funding to the Blue Belt would risk creating the world’s largest network of paper parks, at a time when the UK is seeking to build global consensus around protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, via its Global Ocean Alliance. Policies like the Blue Belt and the government’s forthcoming Blue Planet fund, which will be resourced from the international aid budget, and aims to export UK expertise in marine science around the world in support of developing countries, will be even more necessary in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The effects of the pandemic have amplified existing crises such as IUU fishing in some territories, and the UK Government must strengthen its resolve to allocate more funding to conservation outcomes in order to sustainably protect biodiversity and rebuild blue economies around the world.  



Blue Belt Charter Text

Signed by 203 MPs from the 2019-2024 parliament.


Through the actions of successive governments, the UK has demonstrated global leadership in ocean conservation. We call on the UK to reaffirm this leadership by working with the governments of the Overseas Territories to deliver on Blue Belt pledges to:


September 2020


[1] Marine Science

[2] Benkwitt, C.E., Wilson, S.K. and Graham, N.A.J. (2020) Biodiversity increases ecosystem functions despite multiple stressors on coral reefs. Nature Ecology and Evolution. DOI:

[3] Hays, G.C., Koldewey, H.J., Andrzejaczek, S., Attrill, M.J., Barley, S., Bayley, D.T.I., Benkwitt, C.E., Block, B., Schallert, R.J., Carlisle, A., Carr, P., Chapple, T.K., Collins, C., Diaz, C., Dunn, N., Dunbar, R.B., Eager, D.S., Engel, J., Embling, C.B., Esteban, N., Ferretti, F., Foster, N.L., Freeman, R., Gollock, M., Graham, N.A.J., Harris, J.L., Head, C.E.I, Hosegood, P., Howell, K.L., Hussey, N.E., Jacoby, D.M.P., Jones, R., Pilly, J.S., Lange, I.D., Letessier, T.B., Levy, E., Lindhart, M., McDevitt-Irwin, J.M., Meekan, M., Meeuwig, J.J., Micheli, F., Mogg, A., Mortimer, J.A., Mucciarone, D.A., Nicoll, M.A., Nuno, A., Perry, C., Preston, S.G., Rattray, A.J., Robinson, E., Roche, R., Schiele, M., Sheehan, E.V., Sheppard, A., Sheppard, C., Smith, A.L., Soule, B., Spalding, M., Stevens, G.M.W., Steyaert, M., Stiffel, S., Taylor, B.M., Tickler, D., Trevail, A.M., Trueba, P., Turner, J., Votier, S., Wilson, B., Williams, G., Williamson, B., Williamson, M.J., Wood, H., Curnick, D.J. (in press). A review of a decade of lessons from one of the world’s largest MPAs: conservation gains and key challenges. Marine Biology

[4] Cinner, J.E., Zamborain-Mason, J., Gurney, G.G., Graham, N.A.J., MacNeil, M.A., Hoey, A., et al. (2020) Meeting fisheries, ecosystem function, and biodiversity goals in a human dominated world. Science 368: 307-311 DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9412

[5] McClanahan, T.R., Schroeder, R.E., Friedlander, A.M., Vigliola, L. Wantiez, L., Caselle, J.E., Graham, N.A.J., Wilson, S., Edgar, G.J., Stuart-Smith, R.D., Oddenyo, R.M., Cinner, J.E. Global baselines and benchmarks for fish biomass: comparing remote reefs and fisheries closures. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 612:167-192 (2019) DOI: 10.3354/meps12874

[6] Ferretti, F., Curnick, D., Liu, K., Romanov, E. and Block, B. (2018) Shark baselines and the conservation role of remote coral reef ecosystems. Scientific Advances. 10.1126/sciadv.aaq0333.

[7] Defra. Call for Evidence on Safeguarding the environment in British Overseas Territories – Summary of responses. (2020)

[8] Marine Conservation Society. Proceedings of webinar ‘Marine Management Challenges for the

Caribbean UK Overseas Territories in the Context of Covid-19’. (2020)

[9] Roberts, C., O’Leary, B., McCauley, D., Maurice Cury, P., Duarte, C., Lubchenco, J., Pauly, D., Sáenz-Arroyo, A., Sumaila, U. R., Wilson, R., Worm, B. & Castilla, J. C. Marine reserves and climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 114 (24), 6167-6175 (2017). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1701262114

[10] Cinner, J.E., Zamborain-Mason, J., Gurney, G.G., Graham, N.A.J., MacNeil, M.A., Hoey, A., et al. Meeting fisheries, ecosystem function, and biodiversity goals in a human dominated world. Science 368: 307-311 (2020) DOI: 10.1126/science.aax9412

[11] IUCN. Issue Brief: Blue carbon. (2020)

[12] UN. Sustainable Development Goal 14. (2016)

[13] UN. Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. (2020)