The European continent is surrounded by different seas and diverse coastal zones that are essential to society, economy and nature in general. Climate change, pollution and over-exploitation are among the top threats these areas face. Europe has put in place measures to protect its seas, resulting in some local improvements.

From the North Sea to the Black Sea, the European continent is surrounded by seas with unique characteristics and each faces major challenges. Similarly, coastal zones, which are home to millions of Europeans, mirror this diversity—ranging from sand dunes and rocky cliffs to large estuaries. Europeans have been transforming coastal zones for centuries, building cities, ports, and tourism resorts, where many communities rely on healthy and clean coastal and marine ecosystems.

Degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems can be seen almost everywhere: in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean seas and the North-East Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The effects of environmental degradation or climate change are sometimes irreversible.

Major threats to Europe’s coastal ecosystems and biodiversity today include:

  • Climate change impacts, such as warmer surface waters and changes in pH and salinity levels, make it impossible for some shellfish to survive under new conditions
  • Coastal erosion and rising sea levels
  • Pressures from fishing and aquaculture activities
  • Pollution and eutrophication (nutrient pollution) from land- and sea-based activities, including agriculture
  • Dense coastal urban development and tourism
  • Energy transmission lines and mining activities, and
  • Spread of invasive species, especially through shipping.

EU policies and action by Member States have started resulting in local improvements but much more effort is needed to achieve sustainability in Europe's seas.

The European Union and its Member States aim to put 30% of their total marine area under protection, 10% of which is strictly protected, by 2030. Marine protected areas imply restrictions for transport and other human activities.

Our marine indicators show that:

Nutrients and chlorophyll-a levels show decreasing trends in areas where management strategies have been implemented. The status of fish and shellfish stocks has also improved in the North-East Atlantic and Baltic Sea regions. However, 12% of the stocks were still not in a good state in 2019 according to the two criteria to assess good environmental status.

Solving the environmental problems of Europe's coasts and seas requires a policy response that spans water, nature, pollution, fisheries, climate change and spatial planning. Historically these have been considered as separate policy areas. However, the adoption of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) in 2008 introduced an integrated approach. The MSFD considers the entire ecosystem and sets out to achieve good environmental status for many specific aspects of the environment.

The MSFD is supported by several key EU policies, including:

Some marine ecosystems are starting to respond positively to the above initiatives and policies. For example, some marine nature protection and restoration efforts are showing positive local effects on species populations and biodiversity. Fish stocks are also recovering in northern European seas as a result of the increasing proportion of fishing that is conducted sustainably.

These examples show that Europe's seas are still resilient and that it is not beyond our means to help marine ecosystems to recover. They also show that policy and management measures can make an important difference when properly applied.

Through comprehensive assessments and indicators, the EEA contributes to monitoring progress in the state of nature and the seas and highlighting emerging issues.

Climate change’s ‘deadly trio’ for the seas

Climate change affects marine life negatively mainly through its ‘deadly trio’ of making seawater warmer, more acidic, and less rich in oxygen. This summer, global sea surface temperatures were record high and Europe’s regional seas experienced several marine heatwaves.

Recent research indicates that climate change could be responsible for up to half of the combined impacts on marine ecosystems.

85% of the bathing sites in Europe have excellent water quality

Be it a lake in Finland, an Aegean island or the Copenhagen harbour, every year millions of Europeans are enjoying a dip in the water.

Thanks to EU legislation and effective implementation by Members States, the bathing water quality improved significantly over the last four decades. Today more than 95% of bathing sites meet the minimum standards set by EU legislation.

Maritime transport and life under the surface

Maritime transport is estimated to have contributed to the fact that underwater noise levels in EU waters have more than doubled between 2014 and 2019 and has been responsible for half of all non-indigenous species introduced into European seas since 1949. However, even though the volume of oil transported by sea has been steadily increasing, only eight accidental medium to large oil tanker spills out of a worldwide total of 62 occurred in EU waters over the past decade.

These are only a few of the impacts of the maritime sector on Europe's marine ecosystems. Our joint report with the European Maritime Safety Agency provides a comprehensive analysis.

Marine litter: Where does it come from?

There are no surprises: land-based sources account for a massive 80% of marine litter in Europe, and approximately 85% of it is plastic, according to the EEA web report ‘From source to sea — The untold story of marine litterPackaging and small plastic items make up nearly 80% of this plastic waste.

The new EEA report is the first Europe-wide study of its kind taking a holistic look at how this litter is created and ends up in our European seas via our rivers.

Explore WISE Marine for data and information on marine ecosystems.

Are Europe's seas clean, healthy and productive?

The use of Europe's seas — both in the past and today — is taking its toll on the overall condition of marine ecosystems. This puts expectations for their future use at odds with the long‑term policy vision for clean, healthy and productive seas.

Signs of stress are visible at all scales — from changes in the composition of marine species and habitats to a shift in the seas' overall physical and chemical characteristics. Looking closer at the overall condition of marine biodiversity in Europe, some worrying conclusions emerge:

  • Almost all marine species groups appear to be in bad condition throughout Europe’s seas, with mixed recovery trends.
  • For many species and habitats, there is too little information available to analyse their status or identify whether they are on track towards recovery.
  • While some species are recovering, Europe’s marine ecosystems appear to be in decline overall.

More information