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The value of restored UK seas

Protecting our marine ecosystems

Simon Walmsley of WWF-UK explains the need for the UK government to act now

UK seas – and the species that call them home – are facing multiple, pressing threats.

A female spiny seahorse (Hippocampus guttulatus) in a meadow of seagrass, in (Zostera marina) Studland Bay, Dorset. Photo: / Alex Mustard / WWF-UK

Over the past century vast swathes of coastal habitats, from saltmarshes to seagrass meadows to oyster reefs, have faced substantial decline. For example, it’s estimated that 85 per cent of seagrass meadows have been lost since the 1920s. These are precious habitats for wildlife – home to an incredibly diverse range of species from seahorses to wading birds – and for climate, as they can lock up significant amounts of carbon from the atmosphere.

Overfishing and unsustainable fishing have decimated fish populations, with projected declines of 15 per cent in stock levels in the Celtic seas and 35 per cent in the North Sea by 2050 if action is not taken to halt and reverse the current unsustainable and destructive practices.

The loss of fisheries and coastal ecosystems could cost the UK £15 billion by 2050.

At the same time, climate change is already having a major impact, as warming waters increase acidification, contribute to sea-level rise and put enormous pressure on marine ecosystems. Climate change is expected to cost the fishing industry an estimated £1.5 billion by 2050.

The risks are real and substantial. However, there is plenty of room for hope if we act now to protect and restore UK seas – before it’s too late.

A recent WWF report showed that restoring the UK’s seas to good health could pump billions of pounds into the economy by 2050, bringing thousands of new jobs, huge climate benefits, and nature restoration.

The economic potential of restoring our seas, by adopting a holistic approach and making a significant investment in ocean recovery, could bring additional benefits of at least £50 billion by 2050, and potentially create 100,000 clean energy jobs, mostly in marine renewables.

Protecting and restoring natural carbon sinks – areas rich in ‘blue carbon’, like saltmarshes and seagrass meadows – will also offer benefits such as improved climate resilience and adaptation, flood damping, nursery areas for fish and biodiversity hotspots.

The rewards for restoring and protecting UK seas are potentially huge. However, for UK seas to fulfil that potential, we must work at pace to understand and protect what we have, and restore what we have lost.

The benefits of blue carbon

Building our knowledge and understanding of vital marine habitats is a crucial starting point.

A seagrass bed on the north west coast of Wales. Photo: Lewis Jeffries / WWF-UK

Right now, many people are unaware of the climate benefits our seas afford us; for example, the world’s oceans absorb around a third of our carbon emissions.

Despite the critical role the ocean plays in drawing down and locking away carbon – blue carbon – there is a risk that damage to the marine environment will undermine its ability to do just that.

As things stand, there is a scientific blind spot when it comes to understanding the quantity and location of the UK’s blue carbon hotspots, and due to the inadequate attention blue carbon has received this data is completely missing from government climate equations.

That is the reason why WWF, alongside RSPB and the Wildlife Trusts, has launched a major new project, working with the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) to map the UK’s blue carbon stores right across the UK marine environment, to better understand exactly how much carbon is sequestered and stored by habitats, from saltmarsh and seagrass beds to biogenic reefs and marine sediments, and the associated risks of disturbing these areas.

As well as locking in carbon, these ecosystems provide a host of benefits for people and UK nature, from supporting the livelihoods of coastal communities (for example, saltmarsh and seagrass beds help protect the coastline from the impacts of storms) to providing important habitats (such as feeding grounds and nurseries for a diverse range of species).

This work has already yielded remarkable findings. For example, carbon sequestered in the top 10 cm of the seabed of the English sector of the North Sea alone has been shown to be equivalent to 20 per cent of what is stored across the UK’s forests and woodlands at present. This is likely to be just the tip of the iceberg.

Given the enormous amount of blue carbon likely to be locked up in our marine environment, from plants to sediments, we should be doing everything in our power to ensure it stays that way.

However, these natural marine carbon stores are thought to be vulnerable to various pressures which can cause them to be disturbed, damaged, or removed entirely. These pressures include impacts from bottom-towed fishing gear, which is prevalent in the UK fishery sector, and developments at sea and along our coasts, such as offshore energy and dredging.

Understanding and mapping our blue carbon stores, and exploring the impacts of human activities on them, will be critical in enabling UK governments to plan and prioritise how we use our marine environments in the future, to minimise the risk that blue carbon stores are damaged or lost.

Assessing the carbon storage and sequestration potential of all UK seas, as well as within Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), will help to create a robust framework for action, strengthening the case for better protection and restoration of the richest blue carbon habitats and the significant biodiversity associated with them. It will also help to ensure better management of activities at sea that can damage these habitats, potentially impairing their natural ability to sequester carbon or remain as areas rich in biodiversity.

Given that two-thirds of the UK sovereign state is under water, this information could be critical in helping the UK meet its commitments to achieve net zero and to protect at least 30 per cent of UK seas for nature by 2030.

But we can’t stop there.

Futureproofing our marine sector

As well as getting a grip on the UK’s blue carbon, we need UK governments to put in place plans to actively address the climate impacts of marine industries, from infrastructure to fisheries.

Aerial view of inter-tidal saltmarsh in the Thames estuary – Abbotts Hall Farm, Essex. Photo: © / WWF-UK

Until now, fisheries have been largely ignored in climate negotiations, but – like all other sectors of our economy – the industry urgently needs to move onto a sustainable footing.

WWF has set out a range of measures, as part of a ‘climate-smart’ strategy for UK fisheries, that would help to futureproof the sector and minimise its climate impacts.

These include limiting bottom-towed fishing gear to protect blue carbon, both within and beyond existing MPAs, working to decarbonise the UK fishing fleet, for example by removing fuel subsidies and eliminating inefficient fleet structures, and installing remote electronic monitoring cameras on UK vessels, to tackle overfishing and bycatch.

These are just some of the steps that WWF has set out that could reduce the environmental impact of UK fisheries and help restore UK seas to good health.

Driving down the climate impacts of the fishing industry is just one thread of a much-needed wider strategy from UK governments that will help to effectively protect and restore the marine environment across the board.

We need to put ocean recovery into law, to meet national goals for our marine environment. And we need to see ambition to ensure deep reductions in emissions through a shift to net zero shipping and investment in renewable energy.

The need for action

To deliver, we need to see concrete action to ensure the recovery of lost and degraded coastal ecosystems, and to fully protect at least a third of UK seas, including blue carbon hotspots.

If UK governments adopt these recommendations, they will help to bring about the recovery of UK seas and meet the triple challenge of sustainably feeding a growing population, while staying on track to keep global warming below 1.5°C and reversing biodiversity loss.

We know the risks are grave, and the potential rewards are vast – and we urge ministers to act accordingly.

Dr Simon Walmsley is Chief Marine Adviser at WWF-UK, where he advises the WWF Network on Global Ocean Governance issues. He is Head of the WWF delegation at the IMO.