Press Release

Europe's coastline approaches environmental 'point of no return'

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Press Release Published 03 Jul 2006 Last modified 03 Jun 2016
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Europe's unique coastal environment is under increasing threat from its own popularity, according to a new report from the European Environment Agency (EEA), released today in Copenhagen.

PRESS RELEASE - Copenhagen, Monday, 3rd July, 2006

Impacts assessed as millions begin annual pilgrimages to the sea

'The changing face of Europe's coastal areas', warns that a rapid acceleration in the use of coastal space, mostly driven by the recreation and tourism industries, threatens to destroy the delicate balance of coastal ecosystems.

For example, approximately two thirds of Europe's wetlands (most of which are coastal) have been lost since the beginning of the 20th century. Development along the Mediterranean has created the 'Med wall' where more than 50% of the coast is dominated by concrete, the report says.

"Our coastlines are the richest ecosystems in terms of the number and variety of plants and animals. Coasts also act as economic gateways to Europe; they are part of the fabric of many societies and are crucial to our quality of life," said Professor Jacqueline McGlade, executive director of the EEA.

"However, to protect our coastal areas, we need to value them not as playgrounds or transport lanes with unlimited building, living, recreational and shipping potential but as fragile systems that underpin landscapes and amenities at the core of many communities," Professor McGlade said.

Population densities along European coast are higher and continue to grow faster than those inland, the report says. Between 1990 and 2000 artificial surfaces (primarily roads and buildings) in coastal zones increased in almost all European countries.

The fastest development occurred in Portugal (34 % increase in ten years), Ireland (27 %), Spain (18 %), followed by France, Italy and Greece. The most affected regional seacoast is the Western Mediterranean. Economic restructuring, much of it driven by EU subsidies has been a driver for infrastructure development, which in turn has attracted residential sprawl.

Climate change, an ageing, more affluent population, increased leisure and cheaper travel compound these pressures leading to a crises for Europe's coastline, the report says.

"Think of the infrastructure required to get one family from Northern Europe to a beach in Spain: transport policies and subsidies, passport agreements, and funding, to name a few. Now think of the impacts on the final destination. As tourists we may contribute to local income and employment, but we also bring pollution and eco-system degradation to areas that have little policy protection and are ill suited to withstand such an intense level of use. While the impacts may be local, the pressures and solutions need to be on a pan-European scale," Professor McGlade said.

Despite this challenging situation, new opportunities are being offered to tackle coastal issues in a more holistic way that views our coastlines as mosaics of rivers and their catchments, coastal zones and marine regions. The on-going implementation of 'integrated coastal zone management' (ICZM), reviewed by the European Commission in 2006, is to be welcomed, the report says.

"There is a long history of policy initiatives to protect Europe's coastline but these have never been implemented in an integrated manner. ICZM involves all relevant stakeholders and takes a long-term view of the coastal zone in an attempt to balance the needs of development with protection of the very resources that sustain coastal economies. It also takes into account the public's concern about the deteriorating environmental, socio-economic and cultural state of the European coastline," Professor McGlade said.

Notes to the editor:

To view the full report, follow this link to the EEA Website:

To find out more about the EEA, visit our website:

Fact Box on Europe's Coast

  • 80 % of ocean pollution comes from land-based human activities
  • Population densities are higher on the coast than inland. For Europe, population densities of coastal regions (NUTS3) are on average 10 % higher than inland. However, in some countries this figure can be more than 50 %. There are many regions where the coastal population is at least five times the European average density.
  • Artificial surfaces spread by 190 km2 per year between 1990 and 2000. Due to the irreversible nature of land cover change from natural to urban and infrastructure development, these changes are seen as one of the main threats to the sustainability of coastal zones. 61 % of total land uptake by artificial surfaces was due to housing, services and recreation.
  • The number of invasive creatures in Europe's seas increased substantially between the 1960s and 1980s, particularly in the Mediterranean. Their effect on native coastal ecosystems is becoming difficult and costly to control. The jellyfish Mnemiopsis leydyi is a common example. An explosive growth in its population occurred after its arrival in ships' ballast waters in the late 1980's. This caused devastation in Black Sea fish stocks, oyster and even the indigenous jellyfish population (EEA, 2005b). The jellyfish even found its way into the land locked Caspian sea, causing serious changes to the whole ecosystem (Karpinsky et al., 2005).
  • The global sea surface temperature has warmed by a mean of 0.6 °C since the late 19th century. The result of sea surface warming is redistribution and loss of marine organisms and a higher frequency of anomalous and toxic phytoplankton bloom events.

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