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    Feb 2022
    Written by Jim White

    The ripple effect: The business case for rewilding our seas

    One of the worldโ€™s largest marine reserves just got bigger

    An exciting announcement was made during the early stages of COP26, in which the Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso announced a new marine reserve in the Galapagos, making an already protected area around the islands approximately 60,000ย km2 larger. This new area includes a 30,000ย km2 no-take zone between Ecuador and Costa Rica where no fishing activities will be allowed.

    The following day, the president of Colombia, Ivรกn Duque, announced an additional 160,000ย km2 of marine protected area on top of the countryโ€™s existing 120,000ย km2 as part of a joint commitment from four Pacific-facing Latin American nations (Ecuador, Columbia, Panama and Costa Rica) to join their marine reserves to form one interconnected area. In doing so, these forward-thinking countries are protecting one of the worldโ€™s richest pockets of ocean biodiversity and an important feeding and migration area for several endangered species including hammerhead sharks, whales, whale sharks, manta rays and sea turtles.

    Why forward thinking? Because as well as protecting the habitat of these charismatic species, this move will play a pivotal role in sequestering carbon. It will also provide greater food security for human communities, support ecotourism opportunities and act as a natural sea defence.

    UK marine protected areas

    The benefits produced by the ecosystem services of healthy marine habitats are available to every country with a coastline, however very few are choosing to maximise them. Here in the UK, we have 371 marine protected areas (MPA) covering 38% of our seas, but a recent report released by the Marine Conservation Society found that bottom trawling had taken place in 98% of the UKโ€™s offshore MPAs. This destructive fishing practice, taking place in allegedly protected areas, is known for its higher levels of bycatch and for damaging marine habitats, particularly the seabed.

    Despite these pressures, the UK is home to over one third of the global grey seal population and the country still gets visits from other large mammals, including orcas, harbour porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. Travel to the Aberdeenshire, Pembrokeshire or Yorkshire coasts at the right time of year and you will have chance to see the huge seabird cities that the UKโ€™s coastal cliffs support, featuring guillemots, razorbills, gannets, puffins, kittiwakes and much more.

    The economic benefits of healthier seas

    The aforementioned species already draw crowds of wildlife enthusiasts to the UK coast and seas; yet think about the further potential if we were to increase the range and health of our marine ecosystems. In boosting the food stock and breeding grounds of our animal neighbours we could help ensure their survival and possibly aid the return of other species currently missing from our waters. The ecotourism benefits of returning charismatic species have already been evident in the Scottish isles following the reintroduction of the white-tailed eagle, which has been calculated to bring up to ยฃ5 million of tourist spend per year and 110 local jobs to the Isle of Mull alone.

    Effectively managed marine protected areas improve the fishing stock of surrounding waters by providing a nursery and safe area for fish and other marine life to grow and thrive. Better protected MPAs around the UK have the potential to positively impact the local fishing economy of coastal towns and cities. Despite UK fishing and aquaculture being currently worth ยฃ446 million annually, coastal communities need the economic boost that healthy marine ecosystems can provide, as workers from seaside towns earn almost ยฃ5000 less than those elsewhere in the country.

    Add to this the savings produced from forming natural sea defences, which habitats such as salt marshes provide, and the business case for nature-based solutions in the marine environment stack up quickly. Take for example the Medmerry Managed Realignment project, for which direct benefits including mitigation against coastal flooding (ยฃ5 million of damage was caused in the most recent breach) were calculated to be worth over ยฃ90 million by the Environment Agency. This is a substantial return on project costs of approximately ยฃ30 million.

    Our most effective carbon sink?

    The UK private and public sectors need to find ways of offsetting their carbon emissions and impacts on nature. Investing in restoring our seas could be one of the most efficient and effective options for offsetting carbon emissions. Currently, 25% of global carbon emissions are captured and stored by the sea in its depleted state, so this percentage will only increase if we restore healthy marine ecosystems.

    Marine and coastal environments such as salt marshes, seagrass meadows and the seabed capture and store massive amounts of carbon, often far more efficiently than other land-based alternatives. For example, 35 times more carbon is thought to be absorbed by seagrass meadows than rainforests! In the UK, there are only 8500 hectares of seagrass meadow left, an estimated decrease of over 90% over the last two centuries, attributed to pollution, mining and farming, dredging, bottom trawling and coastal development. Only while healthy do these marine environments sequester carbon: if damaged or destroyed, the carbon they contain ends up back in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. The capacity of UK seas to sequester carbon can be improved if we halt degradation to protect the ecosystems we already have and focus on restoring further self-sustaining habitats.

    What could beโ€ฆ

    It is inevitable that we need to look towards restoration projects when addressing our historical and future impacts on nature. As oceans cover 70% of the Earthโ€™s surface, they give us a huge opportunity to repair these wonderful ecosystems and reap the benefits of the nature-based solutions they would provide. By restoring habitats like seagrass meadows, salt marshes, shellfish beds and carbon-rich seabed habitats, we can help nature recover, protect our coasts from floods and storms and boost local fishing and ecotourism economies.

    Currently, only 1% of global climate finance is spent on the ocean. An increase in consumer awareness and expectation, along with investors improving environmental social and governance strategies to focus more attention on investing in nature, should see this increase. Directing public and private sector funding towards restoring our seas could help the UK to take proactive steps towards addressing the twin crises of biodiversity loss and climate change: learning from the example of the Latin American countries already making waves.

    Where Nature Positive can support

    Do you want to create a ripple effect of your own? If your business wants to invest in meaningful offsetting opportunities, Nature Positive can provide strategic advice to ensure you return a net benefit to the planet with the biggest bang for your biodiversity buck.

    If your business is yet to fully understand its impact on nature, the Nature Positive team can provide baseline biodiversity assessments and biodiversity footprinting for both your direct operations and your value chain to provide you with a strategic understanding of the size of your impact. Determining the number of ecosystem services used across your business means you can take meaningful action to become nature positive.

    About Nature Positive

    Nature Positive is a team of environmental business consultants that can help put nature at the heart of your organisation. To find out more about the other services we offer, please visit our services page or get in touch.

    *Banner photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen on Unsplash