A group of major conservation organisations have called for action from the UK government to protect a crucial overseas territory and its marine life.
Major conservation groups including WWF, Greenpeace, RSPB and the Marine Conservation Society have this week called for action from the UK government in an ad placed in the Telegraph. The open letter was addressed to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and urges him to create a new Marine reserve around the South Sandwich Islands. They are looking leadership and decisive action from Mr Hunt and his office, as well as environment secretary Michael Gove. The move is part of a campaign by the Great British Oceans coalition (GBO) to create over 4 million km2 of new marine reserves in UK territories. The plan is supported by over 50 scientists, businesses, universities and NGOs. They describe the situation in the South Sandwich Islands as a ‘rare opportunity to protect a unique global wildlife hotspot’ and hope it will be the start of numerous similar projects.
Who are GBO?
Great British Oceans are a coalition of six organisations who work with UK overseas territories to enhance marine conservation and raise awareness for the need of international co-operation to protect marine wildlife. The six groups include Zoological Society London, Blue Marine Foundation, the Pew trusts, Greenpeace, RSPB and Marine Conservation Society and represent a total of 2 million members. The open letter refers to the first step in their ‘blue belt charter’ which aims to protect over 4 million km2 of UK overseas water. Their calls to protect SSI have been backed up by prominent marine scientists and other organisations such as WWF. They have already helped to create a similar reserve in the Pitcairn Islands and also aim to improve conservation in Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha, Saint Helena and British Antarctic territories.
Why the South Sandwich Islands?
The South Sandwich Islands (SSI) are an uninhabited UK overseas territory and a biodiversity hotspot for marine life. The archipelago on the edge of the Southern Ocean has been described in the letter as ‘one of the few near-pristine wildernesses on the planet’. It is home to 10% of the world’s penguins including a population of Chinstrap penguins containing over 1.5 million breeding pairs. It is also a haven for several recovering whale populations including Humpback and Minke whales. Amongst its other inhabitants are Giant elephant seals and several colonies of Albatross. As well as animals it also includes seamounts and hydrothermal vents, both of which are vital habitats that play important roles in the larger ecosystem. However less than 2% of the area is protected so GBO are pushing for a 500,000km2 fully protected area. This would completely protect its inhabitants from fishing, whaling and other destructive practises.
The letter opens by mentioning it has been one year since the BBC’s Blue Planet II in which David Attenborough highlighted the very real threats facing our world’s oceans today. The program inspired the British public to take note of issues such as climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution. For most people it was the first time they were realising the scope of some of these issues and willing to do something about it. GBO took advantage of this to kick-start their ‘blue belt’ charter. In the days after the release of the final episode the social media hashtag ‘backthebluebelt’ was used over 40 million times on Twitter and Facebook. In fact in its peak a twitter user was tweeting their MP every 7.5 seconds.
This lead to widespread support for the charter which is now publicly backed by 285 MP’s from across all major political parties. In December 2017 the then shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman went on social media to announce the blue belt charter would be part of the Labour party’s official environmental policy. Whilst support for the charter remains strong this letter has been used to call for government to act on its pledges and to place the issue back into the public spotlight. It is important for GBO that the marine reserve is created as soon as possible so that they can keep to their schedule of achieving their goal by 2020.
Internationally there is now a pledge to protect 20% of the world’s oceans by 2035. GBO and other conservation groups are now urging the British government to be world leaders in helping achieve this by setting an example others can follow. As UK overseas territories cover a significant part of the world’s oceans there is no reason this shouldn’t be the case. It seems there is no real reasons politically or otherwise why the marine reserve in the South Southern Islands should not be created.As of yet there has been no response from the foreign office or Mr Hunt.
A copy of the letter placed in the Telegraph can be found below.