How can Great Britain, an island nation with a historic presence on the world’s oceans, work to sustainably manage their oceans post-Brexit?
In the face of the overwhelming rise of ecological devastation around the world, our seas need to be managed sustainably, both leading up to and post-Brexit. The past couple of decades has been rife with several ecological disasters and build ups, from billions of gallons of crude oil spilling into waters, to pollution pile-ups ranging in size from microplastics to entire fishing nets. Thus, we have to engage with the idea of a ‘Blue Economy’.
The Blue Economy, as defined by the World Bank, is an economic model ‘designed to promote the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth, improved livelihoods and jobs, and ocean ecosystem health’ through multiple different flows of finance and resources. In particular this includes the navigation of oceanic resources such as minerals and biodiversity, of which their mismanagement has had some of the largest impacts on our oceans. This could even consist of tougher regulation on offshore drilling, unsustainable fishing practices such as ghost fishing or deep-sea trawling, or even a ban on microplastics so as to ensure that the resources the ocean provides is protected and able to be used far into the future for both local communities and the national economy.
So far, the UK allegedly made steps to develop a sustainable approach to oceans. Last April, the Environmental Audit Committee stated: “We will look at emerging marine industries, and how the Government can build a sustainable ‘blue’ economy.” Yet, how concrete is this claim in the face of a potentially volatile relationship with other markets after Brexit?
The power of the fishing industry and its scepticism of the rights and quotas could well have an impact on the UK’s ability to achieve these goals. Even prior to Brexit, the fishing industry’s relationship with the other countries was tumultuous, being the source of previous tensions with Spain, and one of the causes of the Cod Wars – a trade war in the North Atlantic with Iceland during the second half of the 20th Century.
The UK boasts the second largest fishing fleet in Europe in terms of output, contributing £775 million in landings (the catches of marine fish landed in foreign or domestics ports) alone in 2015. However, the dropping rate of catch predicted for the future years is estimated to cost the economy millions of pounds as a result of fishery mismanagement.
A potential solution to this is sustainable management of fisheries and oceanic resources as dictated in a Blue Economy. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is one of the largest advocates for sustainable fishing in Europe. They have long advocated, with some notable success, for more sustainable British consumption habits. They have worked to ensure that fish that is caught is from certifiably sustainable sources, which allows for fish stocks to be managed at adequate levels for recovery and accounts for the environmental impacts that the industry may have on the ecological balance. However, the MSC is a not-for-profit organisation, and as such may not actually be that well placed in policy-making sectors to be able to ensure such sustainable policy is implemented in Brexit Britain alone, and it should be approached perhaps with a combination of research and advocacy groups too.
Beyond this, Britain’s Blue Economy also has to deal with issues like mineral exploitation and pollution. This may be difficult for the UK, which has long been one of the largest oil and natural gas producers in Europe. This is slowly changing. As of 2005, British production of oil and natural gas dropped lower than its consumption and, thus, Britain became a net importer of fuel.
Despite the decline in production, the UK government still offers many tax breaks benefiting production of fossil fuels, and was one of the few G20 countries to increase their subsidies in recent years, as reported in a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Thus, it’s hard to gauge the dedication of the current parliament to a Blue Economy, or even sustainability in general, whilst subsidies for exploration and mineral extraction in our oceans – which can sometimes result in oil spills – continue to be offered.
Britain claims to be dedicating time to establishing a sustainable economy with our oceans, especially given our stake in them; however, the government’s history of ocean management leaves a lot to be desired both domestically and internationally. If the UK hopes to be a world leader on these issues post-Brexit it needs to rectify this immediately and commit in both words and actions to a Blue Economy.
Micheil Page is currently reading an MSc in Global Energy and Climate Policy at SOAS, University of London, specialising in Arctic governance. He is a fellow at the Polar Research and Policy Initiative, and is also one of the Co-Directors of UniSolar, the UK’s first student-led community energy enterprise.