Our blue backyard, why the UK needs to do more for our ocean health

Our oceans have been fundamentally changed by human activity and the UK must go further if it’s going to achieve Goal 14. Alec Taylor of WWF UK has reason to hope a transformation is not too far away 

The seas around the UK sustain us, protect us and feed us. When we think of our childhood, a trip to the coast or eating fish and chips usually ranks pretty highly. Yet many people would be surprised to know our waters are also home to globally important species and habitats, from puffins and harbour porpoises to coldwater reefs and pink sea fans. We have amazing and unique biodiversity right on our doorstep.

But UK seas are under continuing and increasing pressures and are in bad shape. Traditional industries such as fishing and shipping are competing with emerging sectors such as offshore wind for space, we are filling the ocean with plastic, and shipping and other activities are making the seas ever noisier.

And to top it all off, the oceans are the front line against climate change, absorbing a third of carbon dioxide and almost all the heat produced by humans, causing fundamental shifts in the food chain as changes in temperature affect plankton species, which in turn affect the fish that seabirds and marine mammals feed on.

Our seas, which benefit us all, are a fundamentally changed place that need urgent help to thrive again. This is the context by which we have assessed the progress of the UK in delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in its own blue yard, as part of Measuring up.

Much has been done to improve the marine environment in recent decades, led by improvements to water quality as water companies started treating their runoff. Fish stocks have also improved in recent years, although they remain overfished by historical standards, and almost a quarter of UK waters are officially protected for their conservation value with more to come. New legislation has entered into force to tackle the use of plastic microbeads in cosmetics.

Nevertheless, our report shows that the UK is not likely to meet the majority of targets under SDG14 within their current timeframe. Pollution, including the tide of plastics ending up in our sea, is a particular worry, with trends going in the wrong direction. What’s more, the majority of protected areas lack effective management, monitoring and enforcement, and marine plans for the rest of UK waters have been lacklustre to date.

SDG14 can’t be seen in isolation. Meeting the targets under SDG14 will depend on achieving all the other goals, particularly goals for clean water and responsible consumption, as well as climate change. The sea can no longer be treated as out of sight, out of mind. Much will also depend on the outcomes of the UK’s departure from the European Union, particularly for the way that fisheries are managed across borders.

However, the UK already has a framework to deliver on SDG14 (and other SDGs) through the “UK Marine Strategy”. This strategy aims to achieve healthy seas by 2020 and beyond, with a set of targets for all parts of the marine environment. It’s really comprehensive and has driven work on issues such as food webs and underwater noise. What’s more, it is being updated later this year, in the context of delivering the SDGs and also the English 25 Year Environment Plan.

The next few years will be a critical and uncertain period, but one where the UK has the opportunity to be a global leader in marine conservation in the run up to the next major global biodiversity conference in Beijing in 2020. There, world leaders will set new targets for restoring nature to 2030 and beyond, embedding the SDGs further. Measuring up shows that the UK has made some progress to meeting its SDG14 targets, but can and must go further to create the healthy oceans and coasts that we all depend on.

Alec Taylor is Marine Governance Programme Manager at WWF UK who led the Goal 14 chapter of Measuring up. You can find him on Twitter at @1TakeTaylor.