Restoring UK seas could boost economy by £50bn

Dive Deeper

What’s happening? The UK economy could benefit from a £50bn ($68.2m) boost if the sea is allowed to recover from overfishing. If the UK continues on its current path, however, the loss of coastal ecosystems and fisheries would cost £15bn a year by 2050, according to WWF and Sky Ocean Rescue. The organisations are appealing to the UK government to embark on an ocean recovery strategy in H1 2021. The strategy should include the restoration of coastal habitats, the protection of a third of the nation’s seas and the introduction of sustainable fisheries and seafood production.

Why does this matter? As WWF and Sky Ocean Rescue’s report highlights, the UK has failed to ensure good standards have been reached in 11 out of 15 ocean health indicators – including those related to fish, birds and the state of the seabed. The organisations state the situation can be improved to the tune of £50bn in economic benefits by 2050, against a cost of around £38bn.

The report estimates only around 1% of the UK’s seas are legally protected, which WWF wants to see extended to at least a third – which would not just benefit biodiversity but also contribute to a green recovery from Covid-19, and to the UK’s net-zero emissions target. WWF estimates marine habitats are up to 20 times more effective at sequestering CO2 than land-based forests.

The report was released a matter of weeks after the UK’s transition period ended following it leaving the EU. While it is uncertain whether the fish swimming in UK waters are now indeed “happier” as a result of the change in the governing framework surrounding them, and the gradual transfer of quotas to the UK fishing fleet, following the scope of the deal and initial frictions UK fishermen certainly are not. Scottish fishers have been particularly affected by additional paperwork, leading Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce a £23m compensation scheme for exporters affected by associated delays.

How Brexit will impact fishing and ocean sustainability longer term remains to be seen. The UK government has said it will invest £100m to “modernise” the fishing industry, but there is appetite for the departure from the EU to be seized as an opportunity to up sustainability standards.

The Marine Conservation Society has said it is critical that protections for the UK seabed from bottom trawling are put in place following Brexit, as ocean-floor sediments act as vital carbon stores. It estimates trawlers operate in all-but-one of the UK’s Marine Protected Areas (MPAs), and that they damaged 98% of MPA seabed between 2015 and 2018. Similar statistics were reported by NGO Oceana. There is long-standing opposition to trawling, with Blue Marine Foundation among many other organisations describing it as a practice that “makes no sense economically or environmentally“. In a recent win for environmentalists, a Scottish judge has ruled ministers acted unlawfully in blocking a no-trawl scheme off the Isle of Skye.

WWF says ending industrial trawling and allowing stocks to recover could result in an additional 420,000 tonnes of fish a year for the UK, worth around £440m. Its analysis also points to the value of promoting ocean sustainability for recreational benefits, reduced emissions, job creation and renewable energy generation, alongside carbon capture and flood protection.

From a broader perspective, as nations look to recover from Covid-19 in a sustainable manner, the ”blue recovery” potential of coastal states has been highlighted by the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. A report from the panel shows that addressing overfishing and investing in sustainable aquaculture would generate $6.7tn in benefits worldwide over the next 30 years. In terms of other recommendations, while the UK doesn’t have any mangroves to restore, it does have a sizable offshore wind industry, within which investors can see £17 returned for every £1 invested, according to the panel. Late last year the leaders of 14 countries, under the High Level Panel, committed to ending overfishing and managing oceans within their jurisdictions sustainably by 2025.