Polar Notes

Mar 2024

Polar Note: The Blue Belt Programme and marine protection across the UK Overseas Territories

The Blue Belt Programme and marine protection across the UK Overseas Territories

Kylie Bamford, Head of Marine Conservation for the UK Overseas Territories, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, explores the UK Government’s flagship international marine conservation Programme, the Blue Belt, which works with a number of UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) to assist them in creating and maintaining healthy and productive marine ecosystems.

From the tropical Pacific and vibrant Caribbean, to the sub-Antarctic islands and frozen Southern Ocean, the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) are custodians to incredible ocean environments. Collectively, this group of Territories are home to around 90% of the UK’s biodiversity and host a huge range of unique and endangered species, some of which are found no-where else on earth – from the Tristan albatross to the St Helena butterfly fish.

The Blue Belt is the UK Government’s flagship international marine conservation Programme. It works closely with a number of these UKOTs to assist them in creating and maintaining healthy and productive marine ecosystems.

Together, with the Blue Belt’s support, the UKOTs have taken bold steps towards the agreed global ambition of protecting 30% of the ocean by 2030, through the active protection and sustainable management of 4.4 million square kilometres of ocean surrounding the Territories.  

The Programme currently supports protection and comprehensive marine management in South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands (SGSSI), Pitcairn Islands, Ascension Island, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, British Indian Ocean Territory, Anguilla, Turks & Caicos Islands, Cayman Islands, and within British Antarctic Territory (BAT)

The Blue Belt Programme, funded by the FCDO, works with the UKOTs to support across these core themes of work:

·       understanding and protecting biodiversity, including by building climate change resilience

·       strengthening governance and management frameworks

·       managing human impacts, such as fishing and marine tourism

·       assisting compliance and enforcement to help prevent illegal activities

·       capacity building and improving ocean literacy amongst on-island communities

 Global ocean in crisis

Why does this matter, you might ask? Well, frankly, the global ocean is facing a multidimensional crisis driven by over and illegal fishing, pollution (especially plastics and nutrients), habitat loss, invasive species, and climate change (ocean acidification, warming and deoxygenation). The UKOTs are each experiencing these challenges in a variety of ways, which ultimately could impact their very existence.

Specifically in the polar regions, whilst the British Antarctic Territory and the sub-Antarctic Territory of SGSSI are considered uninhabited (although with year-round scientific and government officers’ presence), the Southern Ocean has suffered rapid warming and record low levels of sea-ice in recent years, which may have catastrophic knock-on impacts on biodiversity and the global marine ecosystem.

Penguin colony, South Georgia

Once considered un-meltable, Antarctica has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometres of ice each year since 2002. You may feel that this doesn’t impact you, therefore shouldn’t be a concern for the UK. But it very well might impact you, if all the ice melted, there would be a 216-foot increase in sea level – London would disappear under water, along with large swathes of Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cornwall and Somerset (note – it would be easier to list counties that would not be severely affected). Low-lying countries such as the Maldives, Qatar, Denmark and the Netherlands could be lost entirely.

But there is time to re-write this impending tragedy.

Blue Belt in the polar regions

The Blue Belt Programme is critical in supporting the monitoring and management of Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) in British Antarctic Territory (South Orkney Islands Southern Shelf MPA) and the SGSSI MPA, both of which play an important role in offering nature-based solutions to climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Research is integral to this work, and the Blue Belt has supported the growing understanding of these marine ecosystems via two major marine research surveys around SGSSI. The data collected has ensured climate resilience is at the heart of improved management considerations.

Field deployments during marine research expedition around South Georgia

The Programme has also supported in reacting to emerging threats to the UKOTs. In late 2020, the mega iceberg A-68 drifted close to South Georgia, with concerns over the impact this may have on local ecosystems. In response, the Blue Belt funded the deployment of underwater oceanographic gliders as part of a British Antarctic Survey scientific investigation into the megaberg’s impact. Additionally temperature and depth sensors have been provided, which are contributing data to inform the assessment of the impact of the megaberg on the South Georgia and British Antarctic Territories marine ecosystems.

Oceanographic glider (British Antarctic Survey)

In addition to research, UK expertise was provided via the Blue Belt to support the development of a multilateral management framework for krill fisheries management (within the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources) for the BAT and SGSSI region, as well as adaptive management strategies for the MPAs.

While management strategies are vital, ensuring legislation and management measures are complied with is equally important. The Blue Belt provides comprehensive remote satellite surveillance (using a suite of sensors and systems) of the vast and remote waters of these UKOTs, helping to identify and prevent unlawful maritime activity. Since 2017, more than 600 million km2 of satellite imagery has been monitored across the UKOTs maritime areas.

Through this work, the UKOTs continue to be world-leaders in marine protection. Opening the recent Blue Belt Symposium, His Majesty King Charles III, stated:  

“In helping to protect several million square kilometres of ocean, the Blue Belt represents a vital contribution, not only to the fight against climate change... but also to the urgent need to protect and enhance marine ecosystems as part of the commitment to protect 30% of the global ocean, by 2030”.   I tend to agree.

Lord Benyon, Minister of State (Climate, Environment and Energy) looking at specimens from the various offshore surveys around the UK Overseas Territories.

Find out more about the Blue Belt:

·       Follow @UKGovBlueBelton Twitter

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·       Subscribe to the Blue Belt Programme newsletter

·       Read the Blue Belt Programme blog

·       For any further information, email bluebelt@cefas.co.uk