Europe's coasts: reconciling development and conservation

News Published 25 Aug 2010 Last modified 21 Jun 2016
3 min read
Europe’s coastal zones are under increasing pressure from erosion, pollution, climate change, urbanisation and tourism. Such pressures threaten entire ecosystems — vital not only for wildlife but also for the economy and human well-being. The European Environment Agency (EEA) takes a closer look at the state of coastal ecosystems and policy responses to the pressures affecting them.

In some cases it was their sheer beauty that led to development, in others economic potential. Whatever the causes, coastal regions today host almost half of the inhabitants of EU countries with a sea border. They host homes and workplaces, industries, holiday destinations and recreation areas. With an immense variety of habitats, ranging from salt-adapted scrubs and grasslands, cliffs and rocky shores, sandy beaches and tidal areas, estuaries and lagoons, they are also home to numerous species, many a key source of food and economic prosperity for Europe.

Ninth in the series of '10 messages for 2010', the EEA’s new assessment on coastal ecosystems presents key findings on the state of biodiversity in coastal zones and explores the main causes of coastal ecosystem degradation.

As transition zones between land and marine environments, coastal zones are affected by changes and pressures from both sides. Truly sustainable coastal management can only be achieved using an integrated and ecosystem approach, with coordinated action at global, regional and local levels, taking into account the pressures and socio-economic realities both on land and at sea.

Key findings

  • The main causes of changes to coastal ecosystems are coastal erosion; sprawling economic sites and infrastructure linked to urbanisation and tourism; and creating and managing forests as well as water bodies.
  • Coastal erosion is largely caused by sediment starvation as a consequence of river dams, although intensive development and sand mining can also contribute to coastal habitat destruction.
  • Half of Europe’s coastal wetlands are expected to disappear (approximately 4500 km2) as a result of sea level rise linked to climate change. About 10 % of Europe’s coastline is already protected by sea defences.
  • Climate change is also expected to affect river flows and species in coastal wetlands and estuaries. Higher water temperatures might also shift the balance in favour of invasive alien species.
  • Urbanisation put Mediterranean coastal wetlands under constant pressure in the period 1990–2000, particularly in Spain and southern Italy.
  • High nitrate and phosphate loads in water environments lead to blue-green algae blooms, which can choke all other aquatic life through high oxygen consumption and threaten human health in bathing areas.
  • Increasing exploitation of sand and gravel from coastal zones or over-exploitation of fish stocks also put considerable pressure on coastal ecosystems.
  • More than two thirds of coastal habitat types and more than half of species typical of coastal ecosystems have an ‘unfavourable’ conversation status.

 Policy frameworks in place

  • In 2002, the European Commission recommended implementing ‘Integrated Coastal Zone Management’ acknowledging the uniqueness of coastal zones.
  • The EU Water Framework Directive, adopted in 2000, requires surface water bodies (lakes, streams, rivers, estuaries and coastal waters) to be ecologically sound by 2015.
  • The EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive, adopted in 2008, urges the creation of a network of marine protected areas by 2012 and stipulates that marine ecosystems must reach a good environmental status by 2020.
  • Coastal habitats and species are also covered by the European Union’s two key nature conservation directives: the Habitats Directive and the Birds Directive.
  • Several international conventions, including the OSPAR Convention (Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic), Barcelona Convention (Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean Sea against Pollution), and Bucharest Convention (Convention for the Protection of the Black Sea against Pollution) also enhance regional cooperation.
  • More policy-specific responses, such as the ongoing reform of the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy, should also have a strong positive impact on coastal economies.

More information

For additional information on the state of marine biodiversity, please see Census of Marine Life and its report 'First Census of Marine Life 2010: Highlights of a Decade of Discovery'.


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