Restoring the UK's seas to health could deliver a multi-billion pound boost to the country's economy by 2050, generate thousands of new jobs, and help ameliorate the climate crisis and restore biodiversity, according to a new report launched today by WWF in partnership with Sky Ocean Rescue.
The Value of Restored UK Seas calls on the UK government to net these benefits by preparing a dedicated strategy to restore the country's marine ecosystems. It highlights the need for such a strategy by contrasting the economic and environmental consequences of two scenarios: "business as usual", in which the health of UK marine ecosystems continues to decline at the current pace; and "restoring seas to full health", in which significant investment is made in ocean recovery.
The latter would bring economic benefits worth at least £50bn by 2050, the analysis concludes. The gains outlined in the report include the creation of 100,000 clean energy jobs, principally in marine renewables, alongside the advantages brought about by mitigating the worst effects of climate change, via the protection and restoration of natural carbon sinks such as kelp forests and seagrass meadows.
Further benefits would accrue from allowing fish stocks to recover by bringing industrial trawling to an end, which could allow the UK to land an extra 442,000 tonnes of fish every year, worth £440m and supporting 6,600 jobs, the study says.
"Every second breath of oxygen we take comes from the ocean, but the pressures we are placing on UK seas, from pollution to overfishing, means they now need urgent life support," said Tanya Steele, WWF chief executive. "We must halt and reverse decades of neglect to fully protect more of our ocean - the beating blue heart of our planet. We must invest to unlock the potential of the marine economy, to create tens of thousands of jobs both offshore and onshore.
"If the UK is to show leadership at COP26 in Glasgow this year, our governments must work with us to put ocean recovery at the centre of our journey to net zero."
In line with its findings, WWF's report calls on the UK government to design an Ocean Recovery Strategy before the end of the year to restore the country's marine habitats by 2030. It notes that while the UK government committed to achieving healthy seas by 2020, it failed on 11 out of 15 indicators of good health, including those related to bird, fish, and seabed habitats.
In addition, coastal erosion is destroying crucial marine habitats, the study warns, estimating that 85 per cent of saltmarshes and 95 per cent of oyster reefs have been lost. Seagrass meadows, capable of capturing and storing vast quantities of carbon dioxide quicker than rainforests, have also suffered a 90 per cent decline, it adds.
Meanwhile, over-fishing and poor regulation of protected areas have harmed fish stocks, with projected declines of 15 per cent in the Celtic seas and 35 per cent in the North Sea by 2050 if action isn't taken. Exacerbating all these risks is climate change, which is expected to cost the fishing industry an estimated £1.5bn by 2050, as warming waters accelerate acidification and put enormous pressure on marine ecosystems.
Responding to the report, Environment Minster Rebecca Pow said that "the UK Government is committed to leading efforts to protect our ocean and marine life at home and internationally."
"We have already established a 'Blue Belt' covering over 38 per cent of our waters and are leading calls for at least 30 per cent of the global ocean to be protected by 2030," she said. "However there is still a great deal to be done to restore our ocean to its natural state and I welcome the valuable work of WWF and Sky Ocean Rescue to place a spotlight on this issue."
The deterioration of the UK's marine habitats is part of a global crisis, with global heating, acidification, plastic pollution and over-fishing all combining to drive a collapse in the abundance of ocean life and the health of marine ecosystems. Research also released this week found that the world's oceans reached their hottest level in recorded history in 2020, that the five hottest years in the ocean had occurred since 2015, and that the rate of heating since 1986 was eight times higher than that between 1960 and 1985.