Ladies and gentlemen, I am so delighted to welcome you all here today for this landmark in the history of the Marine Conservation Society.
I can only imagine that this silver jubilee must be a source of particular pride to the two visionary people who, all those years ago, recognized the crucial need for an organization to protect and champion Britain’s marine environment. Bernard Eaton and Professor David Bellamy are certainly owed an incalculable debt of gratitude from many of us. And, if I may say so, I am proud to have been involved almost from the beginning – if I remember, I was Patron of the Underwater Conservation Year in 1977, which eventually evolved into the Marine Conservation Society, of which I am delighted to be President and which has worked tirelessly for cleaner seas, sustainable fisheries and protection for our remarkable marine wildlife.
And what a record of achievement it has to celebrate….
The MCS Good Beach Guide has applied the unstinting pressure needed to ensure that sewage pollution on our beaches is relegated to history. The basking shark – one of the most impressive native animals in our seas – was protected because the Society presented the evidence for its decline. And, more recently, the Good Fish Guide has changed the basis on which many major retailers and consumers source their seafood, driving the market to support sustainably managed fisheries. Indeed, you will be glad to hear the seafood you have been served tonight was Marine Stewardship Council-certified!
It is little wonder that the MCS is one of the most respected environmental champions…
So there is much to celebrate but, dare I say it, there is still much to be done.
That is why the Society is launching a new report which will highlight one of the greatest environmental threats of this century – the systematic decline in the state of our seas. Overfished and awash with rubbish, there are now seven times more vertebrate species facing extinction in UK seas than in the entire British Isles.
Entitled “Silent Seas”, deliberately echoing Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring”, the report will be a wake-up call that our seas need urgent help to ensure that they do not fall silent or still. In true MCS style, it will present the solutions as well as the problems and, having had a sneak preview of the report, I can only congratulate everyone who has contributed, not least the artists who have illustrated it so remarkably.
And there is more encouraging news, particularly with regard to marine reserves which I have always believed can make a vital contribution to the health of our seas. Recent research has shown that reserves not only afford marine wildlife the protection that it so desperately requires, but also that they have a key role to play in helping our fisheries recover. The only current marine reserve at Lundy in Devon has seen lobster numbers increase seven-fold in just four years and, not surprisingly, local fishermen are very supportive. This is why I am so delighted by the UK and Scottish Governments’ proposals for Marine Acts that will establish a comprehensive network of marine protected areas. And I am particularly keen on their proposals for ‘Highly Protected Marine Reserves’, where no damaging activities will be allowed and for which I know the MCS has been a powerful proponent. Of course, time is of the essence and so I am delighted that the Government seems to be making the creation of Marine Protected Areas such a priority.
That is the good news, but there is yet another threat that will cross the boundaries of even the strictest of marine reserves and that is litter. It is an eyesore on the beaches, but at sea, largely out of sight and thus out of mind, the remnants of our throwaway society are causing incalculable suffering to turtles, whales and seabirds.
Albatrosses, those magnificent and magical birds, are being found dead with their stomachs almost full to bursting with plastic litter of all kinds – and that is when they haven’t actually been drowned by long-line fishing hooks. Here, in Britain, our largest native breeding seabird, the gannet, is equally threatened – over 90 per cent of the nests at Grassholm Island contain plastic debris which entangles the feet, wings and sometimes the beak of the chicks. And our largest marine reptile, the magnificent leatherback turtle is particularly susceptible – their favourite food is jellyfish, which bears a striking similarity to a floating plastic bag – a bag that can block their gut and so they starve to death. If you are in any doubt, just take a look at the model next door showing the sort of debris that is found in the stomach of a dead turtle.
We simply cannot continue to treat the oceans in this way. How can we talk about sustainability and stewardship when we are allowing this to happen?
That is why the Marine Conservation Society is so vital. Its annual “Beachwatch” event involves thousands of volunteers who not only clear our beaches of litter, but painstakingly identify what each item of litter is so that the MCS can target the sources. I am so delighted that there are representatives here today from that brave band of volunteers who are making such a difference for the better.
Indeed, there are so many people here today to whom huge thanks are owed for their support of the Marine Conservation Society and I hope that each and every one of you is feeling a real sense of pride in the achievements of the last twenty five years. I particularly want to thank the new corporate supporters – Loch Duart, Waitrose, Loch Fyne and Dragon Feeds – who have joined the campaign. I can only hope that many more businesses will follow the lead being given by these pioneering “MCS Oceans 25 Ambassadors”.
Ladies and gentlemen, with the crisis of climate change and the rising cost of food, never has it been so important to take immediate action to protect marine life and ensure the sustainable management of the many resources and benefits that our seas provide to us all. The Marine Conservation Society is at the very heart of this fight. For all our sakes, let us hope that it is as successful in the next quarter of a century as it has been in the last, and I can only end by congratulating the members, staff – led so ably by Samantha Fanshawe – together with the volunteers and the supporters for your unstinting commitment and dedication.