Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.
As politicians continue to debate how and whether Brexit is to be implemented, marine scientists and environmental activists are wondering about the future of British marine management; a pressing challenge as we enter a critical era of adaptation to the changing climate and affected ecosystems.
To say that the British parliament has struggled to adopt a consensus before the country officially leaves the EU would be euphemistic. While a lot of press has been given to the economic and political aspects of Brexit, very little is known about the UK’s plans for future environmental law making, if there are any. As part of Theresa May’s final attempt to get the House of Commons to back the withdrawal agreement negotiated by her government, the outgoing Prime Minister stated on 21st May that there would be ‘no change in the level of environmental protection’ after leaving the EU. However, May of course will now no longer be in charge of the Conservative Party from the 7th June and a new Prime Minister will be in place by the end of July, nor was any specific detail spelt out before her resignation announcement swiftly followed.
Environmental protection, and especially the oceans and the complex ecosystems they host, seems to be an issue politicians need in their agenda to please conservation agencies and ensure the continuity of the ecosystem services they provide, but it’s never fully understood or addressed as a priority. Although the objective stated by the British government regarding its marine environment is to have ‘clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse oceans and seas’, marine management is most often seen through the obsessive filter of putting a monetary value on the ecosystem services provided by the oceans.
Yet, it is now widely accepted that we have entered a new era of a warming climate and shifting ecosystems all around the globe. The Arctic sea ice is melting, subtropical seas are warming up, and many of the previously established equilibria of marine ecosystems are either standing dangerously too close to the brink, or have already irremediably been tipped. Thus, legislation and policy making must demonstrate a fast and efficient governmental reaction to environmental problems if we are to keep benefitting from the many functions the ocean carries out.
To this day, however, most of the UK’s environmental and marine management laws fall under European Union (EU) legislation. The EU defines fishing quotas, determines what a “healthy” marine habitat should be and allocates a certain amount of money to member-nations in order to transition towards “sustainable fishing”. Of the European Maritime and Fisheries fund (a grant aiming to support sustainable fisheries and aquacultures in applying countries) the UK’s share amounts to €243.1mn for the period 2014-2020. The likelihood of the EU closing this tap is rather high, leaving the British government to find other solutions to fund the highly necessary transition towards less harmful fish exploitation.
Lack of external financial aid is only one of the many impacts of isolated management of national waters. Most of the current groundbreaking scientific discoveries in European waters are enabled by initiatives from scientists from various nationalities and organisations, demonstrating once again the importance of international cooperation over environmental matters. Thorough research is the foundation of efficient policy making, but the time lag between the discovery, its communication to the public and authorities and the execution of the law might worsen after Brexit. This is due, on the one hand, to delays in the adoption of a “divorce” deal, and on the other, a potentially hurt communication between the EU and UK in the future. Territoriality might cause further tensions should disputes arise between fishing vessels operating in the same areas, and cases such as the clashes last year between British and French shellfish-harvesting boats might become more frequent and heated. Marine organisms are not concerned by such boundaries or fishing season opening issues, and whether they want it or not the British do share the English Channel with France.
Following the concerns raised by this colourful canvas of new Brexit-derived obstacles, the Marine Biological Association and the British Ecological Society gathered together last June to assess the impact of leaving the EU on marine biodiversity and fisheries management, as well as additional challenges faced by researchers. Ironically, while Brexit has been supported by some in order for the nation to get back its prestige on the international scene, it might actually damage the UK’s position as one of the world’s leading marine scientist communities. Also, the possibly strengthened control of British citizen entry into European territory is likely to make the international projects mentioned earlier more difficult.
A report issued at the end of the workshop summarises these challenges and the potential matching measures the UK can – and probably should – implement in order for the country to be a prominent marine conservation and research leader. Amongst these “recommendations” is the appointment of a Minister of the Marine Environment. One can only hope that, should this role be created, the health and protection of our oceans will finally be more than a political afterthought.