We owe a duty of care to our natural environment and making sure marine habitats are protected must be a priority

Few people on either side of politics would disagree with the premise that we need to continue to do as much as we can to protect the natural world. This Parliament has seen major steps forward in regulation. Our biggest focus in doing so has rightly been on the implications of a situation where illegal deforestation to grow products like palm oil and soy is doing huge damage to the world’s most important forests.

But illegal deforestation is not the only threat to biodiversity around the world. The loss of marine life and the loss of marine ecosystems is as serious a priority for us all.

The destruction of fish stocks is nothing new. Huge fisheries have been destroyed through excessive levels of catch over the past century. Massive stocks of herring and cod off our shores have steadily disappeared, not helped by the ill-thought out Common Fisheries Policy.

But excessive extraction of fish stocks in a regulated environment is just one dimension of the problem facing marine life.

The frank reality is that illegal practice is a feature of fisheries around the world. Illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is doing massive damage– ironically particularly to the small coastal communities which depend on their fisheries for their local economy.

Illegal operators have little regard for national or international law. They use illegal equipment, they pay no regard to whether the species they are catching are endangered and protected, or whether it is a closed season. Backing those fleets up are refrigerated transport vessels and supply ships moving vast quantities of catch back to markets around the world.

In many maritime regions of the world, IUU fishing has massively contributed to the depletion of fish stocks, especially in developing countries’ coastal waters. One of the biggest problem areas is West Africa, where IUU fishing accounts for an estimated 40% of all fish caught – and is about 20% of illegal fishing worldwide. Apart from the environmental damage, it’s estimated that the practice costs the local coastal economies in that region billions of dollars a year.

IUU fishing is particularly practiced by China and Russia and tends to target species which are already overexploited by legal fishing or which are subject to restrictions for fisheries management purposes – including high-value species such as cod, salmon, trout, lobster and prawns.

The UK and the EU have tough rules on IUU fishing. Imports have to be properly certified. But that does not stop fish from IUU vessels from getting into Europe. There is seldom enough enforcement available to prevent illegality from taking place.

One of the things we learned when the Ukraine War started was just how much of our white fish imports were sourced from Russia. Less well known was how much comes from China. Together with Norway and Iceland, they are by far the biggest suppliers of fish to the UK. And they are the biggest global source of IUU fishing.

We should not trust either country to be ensuring that its fishing vessels conform to international norms and rules on good fishing practices.

So it’s right that we have a tight national regulatory regime, and that it becomes tougher still. But I do not believe it should be the only weapon in our armoury to tackle IUU fishing and indeed illegal fishing closer to home.

So I believe we need to place the same duty on retailers for fish sourcing as we did for forest risk products.

And that means having a mandatory system of due diligence for retailers, particularly for those buying their supplies via third party wholesalers and other intermediaries. In taking their purchasing decisions, they need to be clear that they are sourcing their stock from trusted and reliable sources and that they have line of sight over the entire supply chain.

That is what we are doing now with forest risk products. We need to know that it applies to IUU fishing as well.

I would also like to see clear rules around sustainability of UK fish stocks in the revised fishing arrangements that will need to be put in place in the next Parliament, regardless of the EU approach which still allows catch limits above scientific recommendations. And I believe that due diligence rules then should be applied to UK sourced fish as well – particularly if there is a risk of illegal operations in marine protected areas.

The duty of care that we all have to our natural environment is becoming more and more central to the political agenda in the UK and elsewhere. Making sure marine habitats are high on that agenda also needs to be a priority.

The Rt Hon Chris Grayling MP

The Rt Hon Chris Grayling is the Conservative MP for Epsom and Ewell, and has been an MP was elected in 2001.