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30 per cent by 2030

Passing Start Point, South Devon, in 2018

The 30×30 campaign

Lewis Pugh OIG, United Nations Patron of the Oceans, reflects on his Channel swim – and on what is needed to make a reality out of a commitment to better protection of the marine environment

When I decided to swim the length of the English Channel in 2018, I didn’t dive in at Land’s End and hope for the best. I assembled the very best team. We drafted a training programme. We prepared exceptionally hard. Eating the correct food was a challenge and, above all, I made sure my mindset was right. I did all this every day because consistency is the key to progress.

Setting the target

Three months before the swim I met ocean scientist Professor Callum Roberts to ask him to advise on the right target for our campaign. At the time the UN goal for ocean protection was 10 per cent of our oceans by 2020. Callum made the science very clear: at least 30 per cent of our oceans need proper protection to save them from crossing a tipping point beyond which they cannot recover.

Our 30×30 Campaign target was born.

Stepping up

Lewis Pugh: I reach the white cliffs of Dover, United Kingdom at the end of my Long Swim campaign on 28 August 2018.
Lewis Pugh: I reach the white cliffs of Dover, United Kingdom at the end of my Long Swim campaign on 28 August 2018. Photo: Kelvin Trautman

From the start of my swim at Land’s End to the moment I touched the wall at Dover Harbour 49 days later, the British public were firmly behind us. There was a strong consensus that our waters need proper protection. Michael Gove, then Secretary of State for the Environment, was there to meet me at the end of the swim. He asked what we needed and we told him: proper protection for at least 30 per cent of British waters.

It was exciting when, one month later, the British government took up our suggestion and the UK became the first major economy to call for 30 per cent of the world’s oceans to be protected by 2030. It made the announcement at the United Nations General Assembly.

One year later, in September 2019, the UK formed the Global Ocean Alliance, inviting other nations to support this 30 per cent target. To date over 20 countries have signed on, the latest being Canada, which has an extensive coastline. Finally, the UK commissioned the Benyon Review, which investigated ways of increasing marine protection in waters around the UK. The report, released this summer, is comprehensive. The UK now has clear targets and a fine set of recommendations. All they need to do now is to dive in and commit.

Actions speak loudest

This is where governments can learn a lot from athletes. When it comes to ocean protection, I often see governments setting targets but not following up with the funding, or the hard graft, needed to reach them. That is like me saying I’m going to swim the length of the English Channel without even getting into the water. Or a child dreaming of competing in the Olympic Games but never taking up a sport.

If the UK wants to pioneer ocean protection, it must set the example. It has to act like an athlete, because we will only protect our oceans and avert the worst impacts of climate change if we are consistent in our efforts.

So where should action start for the UK?

It starts with enacting the recommendations of the Benyon Review by establishing Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) in UK waters. It continues with an increase in full and proper protection in Britain’s overseas territories: Ascension Island, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

Time critical

I have never been as exhausted as I was in the final days of my Channel swim. I had to swim 10km a day, rain or shine, but there were days when the storms were simply too wild to risk it. I didn’t welcome the rest, because I knew that the following day I would have to swim 20km to make up the distance. I had to keep with the programme if I was ever going to reach Dover.

The world is reeling from the effects of COVID-19, and we are in the midst of Brexit. We don’t know what other storms are on the horizon. But we can’t let these crises distract us. The UK has to keep its eye on the 30 per cent target, and work consistently every day to get there.

Our oceans depend on it.

Lewis Pugh OIG is an endurance swimmer, a maritime lawyer, and the UN Patron of the Oceans. He pioneers swims in the most vulnerable ecosystems on Earth to campaign for their protection. He was the first person to swim across the North Pole and the first to swim the full length of the English Channel. He was also the first to complete a long-distance swim in every ocean of the world. Lewis has been instrumental in protecting over 2 million sq. km of vulnerable ocean, an area larger than Western Europe. In 2009 he was awarded South Africa’s highest honour, the Order of Ikhamanga (Gold Class).