The Broadcast / A Vote For The Ocean

A Vote For The Ocean

What does a vote for the ocean look like in the UK? Ahead of this summer's general election, campaigner and Ocean and Climate Director of Blue Marine Foundation, Dan Crockett, looks at the current state of the UK's waters and what needs to be done to put ocean health at the heart of policy.


3 min read

Written by Dan Crockett

Photography by Liz Seabrook, Abbi Hughes & Jack Johns

Out of sight, out of mind. So much of what happens in the ocean is permitted because we don’t see it. We think of “marine protected areas” as stopping bad things happening and protecting marine life, but in UK domestic waters this is an inaccurate assumption. In the vast majority of these “protected” areas you can conduct industrial scale fishing that destroys the ecosystem, environmentally disastrous open pen salmon farming and oil and gas drilling. That is without considering other major issues such as sewage pollution, ocean noise and artificial light. The ongoing pollution of our rivers and seas by private companies is a national disgrace. In this critical election year, considering the ocean in how you vote is a way to connect to challenges that for most of us feel hard to solve.

I think it is shocking that marine protection in the UK, which proudly proclaims itself a global environmental leader, doesn’t mean protection at all. We have been at the forefront of advocating for policy initiatives like the Global Biodiversity Framework (196 countries have signed up to targets which include effectively protecting at least 30 per cent of the ocean by 2030), but without really getting our own house in order.

At a surface political level, we look like we are doing the right thing for the marine environment. The UK claims to protect 38% of its domestic waters. The (good) intention behind these designations was to form an ecologically coherent and well-managed network of protection. What we have is Marine Conservation Zones (MCZs), Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), Special Protected Areas (SPAs), Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) and other designation such as SSSIs and RAMSAR sites. In England, seven different government agencies regulate the marine environment: DEFRA, the Environment Agency, Natural England, Joint Nature Committee Council, the Marine Management Organisation and the Crown Estate. Inshore Fisheries Conservation Authorities help to deliver on local community concerns through a series of byelaws.

Only 8% of the ocean is protected, with a mere 2.9% classed as 'fully or highly' protected...

Such fragmentation has created a network of marine conservation in the UK which is simply not effective. Just 8% of our waters are protected from trawling and a pitiful 0.12% is fully protected. It is completely clear that leaving bits of the sea alone benefits everyone, fishermen included, so why can’t we do this right? While the public might think that protection means protection, the opposite is sadly true.

A new administration in the UK has a window to reform this system into something functional and coherent. The recognition that the ocean is such a powerful ally to maintain food security, to fight climate change and keep our planet cool, to support the things that we all love to do, to support our mental health and our own resilience in the face of a changing earth – all of this should make it a priority.

One route could be to create an Ocean Ministry led by a minister with sweeping powers to make effective change in England, an advocate for the ocean in the heart of Westminster. This would centralise a diverse set of issues that are currently handled by siloed, underfunded and overburdened civil servants who are often in their roles for a very short amount of time. How this would work for Scotland and Wales, where protection of the marine environment is even more complex and inflammatory, would need to be locally decided. Many of the decisions about the ocean are made by people who have no connection with it, or the people who depend on it, at all. Decisions are heavily influenced by vocal, well-funded, sometimes aggressive industry lobbyists.

I would therefore vote for the party that seeks to lead on the ocean, not just pay it lip service. A party that would advocate for big ideas like closing Antarctica and the high seas to fishing – places that are currently exploited by a minority for profit, endangering the life support systems of the planet. A party that would move to create genuine and effective protection of at least 30% of our waters, not in 2030 but right now. That could stare down big industry interests, stand up to their highly organised and effective lobbying, to push things like salmon farming and oil and gas drilling out of marine protected areas. A party that would seize a grip on the rampant pollution of our rivers and seas and punish those that violate them, as well as establishing an urgent roadmap out of the current crisis.

This may be too much to hope for. Most of us only notice life below water when it ends up on our plates. Because the ocean lies outside our visual experience we forget about its value and allow its exploitation. A party that lifts this veil would be a party of the future, able to cut through the noise and bureaucracy and dysfunctional status quo. Incremental change will not achieve anything. A vote for the ocean is a vote for human beings, for our survival and resilience. This should make the ocean a political priority for every party, forever.

Dan Crockett is Ocean and Climate Director at marine conservation charity Blue Marine Foundation and also a trustee of Surfers Against Sewage and Hometree.

Our neighbours at SAS have just launched their Vote for the Ocean campaign, to put the sea front of mind as we move towards a general election.

Hit the link to get your free "Vote for the Ocean" or "Vote for our Rivers" poster to show canvassers and candidates that it’s time to cut the crap.


Share on Facebook Share on Twitter