Our marine environment is at risk, in a way that we have not previously thought it was at risk. We had all heard of these vast islands of floating, semi-submerged plastic, which nobody knew how to deal with or tackle and which were getting bigger. The Environmental Audit Committee has done excellent work recently on microbeads. There has been a slow awakening to the peril in which the marine environment is in, but now is the time that we must act. David Attenborough says that we have 50 years to save ourselves, but I think that he is being generous. We have to act much more quickly and decisively, and have the right kind of organisations.
If we look back over 400 years, we in Britain, as the earliest industrialised nation, with the greatest sea power, have not been good at keeping the global environment clean. We chopped down most of our trees to build warships. The biggest problem today is that as China is the most polluted country, followed by India, and then the United States. If we do not work with those large countries, everything we do in the UK will be of much less value. We need international co-operation, but not in a colonial way, pitching up in any country – even in Russia, which is a great polluter – and saying, “You should do what we do”, they would point to us and say, “Well you don’t have a very good record. You’re a late convert”. We are late converts, but we know a great deal now about how to change the environment in which we live and make it more sustainable.
We know, as does anyone who has been following the science, that it is the acidification of the marine environment and the warming of the temperature of the seas and oceans that is taking its toll. That is what we must tackle, and on a global level. It is all right blaming the Chinese, the Russians or the Indians, but we must start at home, spreading good practice and sharing innovation and good science, in the most co-operative spirit possible.
According to Sky Ocean Rescue, a rubbish truck’s worth of plastic is dumped in the ocean every minute. Some 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic have been produced in the past 60 years, and 91% of all plastic made since the 1950s has not been recycled, according to Greenpeace. That is the truth of the matter.
In a Plymouth University study last August, plastic was found in a third of UK-caught fish. Cod, haddock and mackerel were all affected. Only one third of plastic packaging used in consumer products is recycled each year. Two thirds is sent to landfill or incinerated. In terms of tap water, 72% of water samples were contaminated with microplastics. Sixteen million plastic bottles are thrown away every day in the UK.
Yes, that means we need regulation and international co-operation, but we also need individuals to change how they live their lives. All companies need to look at their own products and supply chains and insist that every- thing going through their system of commerce should be of the highest standard. If everyone is at that standard, we will get there.
Marine conservation is not all about plastic, it is also about fishing. More fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. Some 90% of the world’s fish stocks are fully or over-exploited by fishing. Several important commercial fish populations, such as the Atlantic bluefin tuna, have declined to the point where the survival of the species is threatened. We
need marine conservation zones. We need an environmental audit body to create more need to stop trawling. That method scoops up all the fish and simply returns the ones not wanted to the sea, dead.
If we do not act now as individuals, communities and countries working together, we will not survive on this planet.
Barry Sheerman is Labour/Co-operative MP for Huddersfield. This is an edited extract from a Westminster Hall debate.