I have been pleased to receive expressions of support for our Blue Belt – an ambitious pledge to protect our diverse marine wildlife by completing a network of marine protected areas around our mainland coast.

I am delighted that 23 new Marine Conservation Zones have recently been announced, in addition to the 27 designated in the last Parliament and over 500 other marine protected areas that already existed in the UK. This Blue Belt now covers over 20 per cent of English waters. It is quite a challenge, but one that has been high on the political agenda.

This total of 50 English Marine Conservation Zones cover an area roughly equivalent to the whole of Wales, or 13 times the size of Greater London. They will protect 45 different types of habitat, geological features and fascinating sea creatures, including stalked jellyfish and spiny lobsters.

The new Zones represent the second of three phases of Marine Conservation Zones. They build on work to protect the marine environment, which includes new consultations on Special Areas of Conservation for harbour porpoise, and Special Protection Areas to protect feeding and bathing areas. Newly classified Special Protection Areas have just come into force along a 24 mile stretch of coast in Cornwall and in the Irish Sea between the Isle of Man and Anglesey in order to protect rare seabirds.

Further afield, I was delighted by the news that an agreement has been reached to create the Atlantic Ocean's largest marine reserve around Ascension. The new reserve, which is almost the size of the United Kingdom, has been agreed following lengthy negotiations between the Blue Marine Foundation and the Governments of Ascension and the UK.  

Thanks to a £300,000 grant from the Bacon Foundation to cover the costs of enforcement and surveillance, more than half of the Island's waters will be closed to fishing, with the remainder policed in line with the best international standards. Subject to local agreement, the reserve could be in place as soon as 2017.  

The Blue Belt of protected sites will also be extended around the UK's 14 Overseas Territories where there is local support and environmental need.  

Sustainability in our Overseas Territories is a priority. The UK has a responsibility to ensure the security and good governance of the territories and their peoples, and this includes good stewardship of their natural environments. Ministers have worked closely with the Territories to make environmental policy a mainstream issue, bearing in mind how they can benefit from their unique natural heritage.  

The UK funds biodiversity projects in the Overseas Territories through a variety of schemes including Darwin Plus and research programmes. We are contributing some £2 million a year to the Darwin Fund to support environmental management in the Territories.