The Brexit battle for marine biodiversity

Britain’s marine ecosystems are wonderfully biodiverse, with lush seagrass habitats, cold water corals, charismatic marine mammals, and beautifully intricate plankton. Yet the UK, and Europe, have traditionally employed a piecemeal way of managing fish separately from the marine habitats in which they live. The quotas and rules for fishing have been found in different policies from those focused on sustainably using or protecting the very marine ecosystems that support those fish.

In the months leading up to the Brexit referendum, commercial fishing was touted in the media as a key reason for leaving the European Union, with British fishers hoping to have access to additional stocks. The implications of Brexit on the rest of British marine biodiversity was barely mentioned, although it did receive considerable discussion in the marine conservation community.

While I, like most marine conservationists, believed we were better off remaining in the EU, working with our neighbours to manage marine species and habitats that cross political boundaries, Brexit supporters heralded the chance to ‘take back our seas’. They argued that we could do more for the UK’s marine environment on our own, with more freedom to enact laws that would better protect our waters. In short, the UK was presented an opportunity to rewrite our environmental regulation; integrating fisheries policy with management of the wider marine environment through innovative and ambitious legislation, thereby realising the UK’s high level marine objective of healthy, productive and biodiverse seas.

Now that we have left the EU, it’s clear that this opportunity has been missed.

The UK has implemented a Marine Strategy to replace some key EU marine biodiversity legislation, but this policy is to be used in partnership with the UK Environment Bill, which has been postponed again and won’t return to Parliament until autumn 2021 at the earliest.

Therefore we currently have an absent environmental watchdog, a role previously filled by the European Court of Justice, to ensure compliance with our commitments to marine biodiversity. The Environment Bill proposes a similar body, the Office of Environmental Protection, however it won’t be independent from the government and it remains unclear as to the consequences initiated for failing to deliver on environmental commitments.

The Fisheries Bill has now become the Fisheries Act, but its commitments to sustainability are less ambitious than its European predecessor, and all references to climate change proposed in the first draft of the Fisheries Bill were removed.

As disappointing as this clearly is for marine conservation across Europe, there remains a shred of hope for managing marine biodiversity through the ongoing delivery of the UK Marine Strategy, and through our commitments to OSPAR, the North-east Atlantic regional seas commission, that will enable some degree of collaboration with our European neighbours to continue. 

We cannot afford to become battle weary. I trust we will see a day when we fulfil our ambition around sustainable fishing and marine conservation, underpinned by strong marine policies holistically managing the UK’s amazing marine ecosystems.


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