The EU has made substantial progress in designating new marine protected areas, both as part of the EU Natura 2000 network and through complementary national designations. As a result, marine protected area coverage more than doubled, to 12.1%, between 2012 and 2021. However, efforts will need to increase significantly to achieve the EU biodiversity strategy target of protecting at least 30% of EU seas by 2030, while also ensuring that all protected areas are effectively managed. Whether or not this target will be met is uncertain but also rather challenging.

Figure 1. Marine protected area coverage in the EU, 2012-2021

Marine protected area coverage in the EU, 2012-2021

The conservation of coastal and marine areas is important for maintaining biodiversity and ensuring that ecosystems and their services are fully functional. Marine protected areas (MPAs) play a key role in conserving coastal and marine ecosystems, and provide significant economic and societal benefits and support local livelihoods.

To protect the EU’s seas, the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 set the target that, by 2030, at least 30% of the sea area should be legally protected (with 10% of the sea area to be strictly protected).

Over the last decade, the total area covered by MPAs in the EU has increased substantially — from 5.9% in 2012 to 12.1% in 2021. This is the result of both the expansion of the Natura 2000 network — a network of protected areas designated under the EU Birds and Habitats Directives — and protected areas established through complementary national designations.

Although this trend is positive, the area protected will need to expand at a significantly faster rate than it has in the last decade if the EU is to meet the 30% biodiversity strategy target by 2030. The submission of protected area pledges by EU Member States, expected by the end of February 2023 and subject to review in 2023, will provide initial insights into how realistic achieving this target is and identify any major gaps that remain.

Furthermore, the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030 highlights the importance of building a truly coherent trans-European network of protected areas through improving their connectivity. It will therefore be particularly important to base the designation of new protected areas in EU seas on sound scientific analysis, to ensure that these areas are ecologically representative and coherent, enhancing connectivity.

In addition, ensuring more effective management of individual MPAs and their networks should become a major focus in the coming years, as the designation of new MPAs alone will not guarantee the conservation of the EU’s marine ecosystems. Although no comprehensive information is yet available to provide an overview of how effectively EU MPAs are managed, developing such indicators in the coming years will be essential for tracking progress towards implementing the targets of the EU biodiversity strategy for 2030.

Figure 2. Marine protected area coverage in EU Member States, 2021

Marine protected area coverage in EU Member States, 2021

By 2021, several EU Member States had made significant progress in protecting their marine ecosystems through the designation of MPAs. Germany, Belgium and France had designated more than 30% of their waters as MPAs, while the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland and Romania had expanded their MPA networks to cover more than 20% of their waters. In most countries, the majority of MPAs are part of the Natura 2000 network, with nationally designated MPAs adding to some countries’ networks, most notably in Sweden, Spain, Finland, Italy and Portugal.

Although most Member States have made progress in designating new MPAs over the last 10 years, this progress has been slow in many countries. However, differences between countries are in part the result of the wide variation in ecological conditions between Europe’s marine regions. While it is important that Member States continue efforts to define new MPAs at the national level, cooperation across regional seas will also be crucial to support the development of a coherent MPA network across the EU and achieve the target of protecting at least 30% of seas across the EU.