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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Polar Regions

Thursday, July 3, 2008

The following are remarks that Meg gave at the end of a short debate in Westminster Hall on the Polar regions. For the full debate visit: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmhansrd/cm080702/halltext/80702h0009.htm#08070259000002


I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) on securing this debate. The polar regions are incredibly important for us. This issue is rarely discussed in Parliament, so this is a useful, important debate.


As my hon. Friend said, it is timely to focus on the polar regions now, in the middle of the international polar year, which has seen scientists from more than 60 countries mobilised in international collaborations to initiate a new era in polar science. The polar regions are of undoubted global significance: they have a profound effect on the world’s climate and ocean systems and are a unique laboratory for the study of global processes, including, as she set out so well, climate changes.


The United Kingdom has a long history with the polar regions. As my hon. Friend mentioned, this year is the centenary of the UK’s claim to the British Antarctic Territory, which is by far the oldest claim to Antarctica, and it is almost 100 years since the heroic age, when Scott and Shackleton first set out on their Antarctic expeditions.


Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. The UK was the first state to ratify that treaty and, half a century on, the UK remains one of the leaders within the Antarctic treaty system because of the strength of our commitment and the size of our presence in Antarctica. The success of the Antarctic treaty in maintaining the continent for peace and science cannot be overstated. It is a valuable example of the international community’s working together. We intend to mark the 50th anniversary by reaffirming the UK’s commitment to the treaty and, in particular, the implementation of its protocol on environmental protection, which includes an indefinite prohibition on Antarctic minerals-related activities, except for scientific research.


Both Antarctica and the Arctic face considerable challenges over the coming decades. My hon. Friend has set out a number of those, but I know, from my discussions with my officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, that there are far more than can be covered in today’s short debate.


The polar regions encompass some of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet. The resulting increase in melt has caused dramatic impacts on local environments and their ecology. It is predicted that the Arctic will become ice-free during the summer within a very short time span and boats may be able to sail around it, as my hon. Friend said. It is vital that we enhance our understanding of the consequences of that, both on the polar regions themselves and the rest of the globe. The work of British scientists is extremely important in this endeavour. The Natural Environment Research Council and particularly its British Antarctic Survey provide world-leading scientific understanding of the polar regions. We should surely aim to ensure that the UK continues to command such a position.


Climatic changes in the polar regions are also causing shifting social and economic pressures on their management and governance. Turning to Antarctica—I am dealing with the regions the opposite way round to my hon. Friend—increasing summer temperatures and decreases in sea ice cover have facilitated greater access to the continent, notably by fishermen and tourists. The effective management of these activities, in line with the principles of the Antarctic treaty system, is one of the major challenges for the future preservation and conservation of Antarctica.


My hon. Friend mentioned tourism. The number of tourists visiting Antarctica has more than trebled in the past decade. Those lucky enough to make the trip often return determined to play their part in the future protection of the continent and their more immediate environment. However, as she rightly said, with an increasing number of people keen to visit the continent, it is vital that the continuing growth in tourism activities is carefully planned and monitored. The UK is encouraging the Antarctic treaty parties to agree a future vision for the development of Antarctic tourism. As part of that, we aim to ensure that all tourism activities in Antarctica are conducted safely and with minimal impact on the environment.


The sinking of the merchant ship Explorer last year was a salutary reminder that Antarctica remains a distant and inhospitable place. Although we cannot pre-empt the formal investigation, it is clear that the reasonable proximity of other tourist vessels played a large part in ensuring there was no loss of life during that incident. The UK already requires British cruise ships to demonstrate that they are not operating in isolation while in Antarctic waters and continues to encourage other Antarctic treaty parties to do likewise. We are also actively engaged in the work of the International Maritime Organisation to amend the existing guidelines for ships operating in Arctic ice-covered waters in order that they are equally relevant for both the Arctic and Antarctic.


Accurate hydrographic charts are also vital to the mitigation of shipping incidents in Antarctica. More than 95 per cent. of Antarctic cruise vessels operate in the waters of the British Antarctic Territory. Yet less than 10 per cent. of these waters are charted to modern standards. HMS Endurance, the Royal Navy’s ice patrol ship, plays a crucial role in gathering the relevant hydrographic data to support the production of charts by the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office. Back in January 2007, HMS Endurance was also involved in supporting the evacuation of passengers from another cruise ship that grounded in Antarctica. Having HMS Endurance working in Antarctica each summer not only reinforces the British presence in Antarctica, but also directly contributes to the safety of British nationals visiting the continent. We should be justly proud of this unique British ship and its crew.


My hon. Friend rightly mentioned fisheries. Fisheries management in Antarctica is also covered by the Antarctic treaty system, specifically through the convention on
the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources, which aims to provide comprehensive protection and conservation of the Antarctic marine environment, while allowing for sustainable harvesting of Southern ocean fish stocks. As an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, the South Georgia Government implements the convention requirements around South Georgia as a minimum, although there are also tougher restrictions in some aspects of the fishery. South Georgia’s ensuring such a high standard of sustainable management has achieved Marine Stewardship Council accreditation for South Georgia toothfish.


Climatic impacts on the Southern ocean are, however, likely to influence its fish stock levels. In addition, longer summer seasons are providing greater access to the fishing grounds. Illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing activities remain prevalent in the Southern ocean and present the greatest threat to sustainable management. We must be robust in ensuring that all our international partners continue to strive towards the greatest levels of sustainable ecosystem management in Antarctica. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that we will continue to keep this under close review.


Turning to the Arctic, the environmental impacts from climatic changes there are even starker than in the Antarctic, as my hon. Friend said. Reduced sea ice is opening up vast areas of ocean for the first time. Increased hydrocarbon interest and shipping access has followed, all of which are having a profound effect on the Arctic environment and its peoples.


The UK has major economic, political and social interests in the Arctic. However, unlike the Antarctic, there is no Arctic treaty. The issues of importance to the UK are largely covered by a raft of bilateral and multilateral agreements and a suite of international treaties. Most significantly, the United Nations convention on the law of the sea provides the framework for the management of the Arctic seabed. The UK also engages actively with the Arctic Council as a state observer. We regard that as an important forum for dialogue with the Arctic rim states on issues of mutual importance.


The rapid changes in the Arctic also present a constant range of challenges. We are therefore conducting a further review of the UK’s longer-term strategic interests in Arctic matters and how the UK should best engage with Arctic states on issues of mutual interest, through a joint FCO-Ministry of Defence project that will report later this year.


My hon. Friend delighted us with her stories and confirmed that many of the species that we hold dear are in danger—even if we do not know all the different types of penguins. My trip to the Falkland Islands helped me somewhat with identifying penguins. She is right to ask what will happen if we do not protect these beautiful, precious species. We have recognised that the polar bear is threatened in the wild and, although we have no remit to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign states, as I am sure my hon. Friend knows, we are committed to co-operating with the international community to address the threats to its conservation. One way we do that is through membership of agreements, such as the convention on biological diversity and the convention on international trade in endangered species. We will continue to work with all other states to try to ensure the preservation of these precious species.


My hon. Friend talked at length about the narwhal, and we were all educated about its having been thought to be a unicorn. We share her concerns about the preservation of the species. I will investigate the level of assessed endangerment under international agreements, which will inform our action. I will come back to her about the matter, which was new to me.


I would like to end by reaffirming the UK’’s continuing commitment to maintaining its leading role in the polar regions. I thank my hon. Friend for initiating this important debate, and I hope that the issues that she raised will be taken up more widely and by many more parliamentarians. It is something that we should be very concerned about.

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