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Our seas offer millions of people a chance to enjoy the natural environment; provide healthy, secure food supplies and other resources; and support employment in coastal communities. Healthy, productive, sustainable marine ecosystems contain rich and varied wildlife, plants and geological features. They provide a wide range of ecosystem services, including helping to mitigate the effects of climate change.

We subject our seas to competing demands, as well as pollution and other damage. They help to regulate our climate, but their ecosystems are threatened by warming and acidification. Some fish stocks are not fished at sustainable levels and some habitats and species are threatened by the pressures on our seas.

Marine issues are of global concern. The seas offer opportunities to take action on climate change through adaption and mitigation and the UK is taking a lead internationally on issues such as ocean acidification. We are also taking a lead to protect whales and prevent illegal fishing.

Our seas are a common public resource so the government aims to ensure they are sustainably managed for a range of social, environmental and economic benefits. The UK has national, EU and international marine conservation commitments. Defra designates marine protected areas, which play a key part in achieving biodiversity benefits. We are also tackling the issues of how best to strike a balance between conservation and development of marine resources. Supplies of fish as a healthy food source need to be secured, without destroying fish stocks and damaging the marine environment.

Latest news

Key facts and figures

  • Seas and oceans absorb 25% of global carbon emissions from human activity
  • UK seas contain rich and varied wildlife with over 8000 species represented
  • Seas provide revenue from oil and gas (£37 billion), maritime transport (£4.7 billion) leisure and recreation (£1.3 billion), coastal tourism (£5.3 billion), naval defence (£470 million), and fisheries and aquaculture (£400 million)
  • Wind and tidal energy are likely to meet 50% of UK’s renewable energy needs

What is the current situation and background

The government’s marine programme covers six areas:

1. Implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive

Defra is implementing the Marine Strategy Framework Directive to secure good environmental status in our seas. This Directive requires EU member states to put in place measures to achieve or maintain good environmental status in their seas by 2020. The government is transposing the Directive’s requirements into national legislation and deciding what good environmental status will mean for our seas, balancing our environmental ambitions against impacts on industry and society as a whole.

2. Managing our marine resources to secure sustainable development in our seas

The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 provides for a planning system and a streamlined licensing system.  This will secure sustainable economic growth, balanced with environmental protection and support for communities. With the devolved administrations, Defra is preparing the Marine Policy Statement which sets the framework for marine plans and provides a coherent approach to the demands and pressures on our seas. New marine plans will be rolled out from 2011 to provide more strategic national and local decision-making to assist sustained economic growth and environmental protection. The Marine Management Organisation, established under the Act in April 2010, brings together management of a number of marine activities including fishing, nature conservation, licensing and enforcement within a single organisation and will also be responsible for the marine planning system.

3. Protecting, conserving and enhancing marine biodiversity

Defra is seeking to halt the decline in biodiversity, and allow recovery where appropriate. This requires a wide range of measures to be agreed to meet our obligations under EU and national legislation, while managing competition between conservation and socio-economic needs. Marine protected areas are one of the major tools to conserve biodiversity and associated ecosystem services in the marine environment. We are giving high priority to maintaining the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling.

4. Securing economically and environmentally sustainable fisheries

We are seeking new ways of managing fisheries at national, European and international levels to secure long-term sustainable fisheries, support a viable fishing industry and provide secure, healthy food supplies. Our work includes seeking radical reform of the Common Fisheries Policy in 2012, reforming English inshore fisheries to deliver a thriving and sustainable inshore fleet, and reducing discards. We are also setting up Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authorities, under the Marine and Coastal Access Act, to replace Sea Fisheries Committees to modernise inshore fisheries management in England.

5. Managing fish and seafood supply chain to provide secure, healthy food

We are seeking sustainable consumption and production throughout the fish supply chain. We are contributing to the Defra Food Strategy and Action Plan and taking forward the evidence from the industry-led Fish and Shellfish Roadmap to feed into fisheries reform. We are assessing the potential for increasing domestic shellfish and aquaculture production and we are also supporting a sustainable global fisheries trade, including controls on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

6. Understanding and adapting to the changing marine environment

As we face serious challenges, such as climate change, ocean acidification and depletion of some fish stocks, high quality targeted marine science is essential to provide the evidence base for effective policy-making. We are working with European partners to meet the requirements of the EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive and to assess the impacts of climate change on our seas and ways we can adapt to this. The Marine Science Co-ordination Committee is steering UK marine science programmes, including work on climate change. The UK Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy community assesses the state of UK seas.

Relevant legislation and regulations

Key publications and documents

Key policy documents:

Key evidence documents

Page last modified: 8 March 2011