Maritime activities

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 11 May 2020
8 min read
Photo: © Pirjo Jha/EEA

Exploitation of European seas and coasts is increasing as new industries emerge and traditional ones move further off-shore. The main pressures include: extraction of species and genetic resources, seafloor exploitation, pollution and the spread of non-indigenous species.

In calling for an ecosystem-based approach, the EU's Blue Growth Strategy recognises the balance that must be achieved between 'use' of the sea and achieving the objective of 'good environmental status' by 2020.


European marine regions range from open oceans to almost entirely land-locked seas. Each sea is shared by a great many people, cultures, and activities with dependencies that can stretch back for millennia. They are also the home to thousands of species of plants and animals.

Marine regions have long been drivers of economic growth, providing natural resources and access to trade and transport, opportunities for recreation, etc. Maritime activities today remain essential to the economy and to society in general, with high expectations for future growth.[1The table on European maritime activities and potential environmental issues provides an estimate based on best available resources, but should be considered with caution given the significant uncertainties of the socio-economic data. 

Preventing or reducing environmental damage and achieving sustainable use of the marine environment remain a challenge. Addressing it should be key for Europe's development given the services and benefits that healthy oceans can deliver.[2][3][4]

A number of European Union (EU) policy initiatives thus focus on the sustainable exploitation of marine resources. These include the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) and the Integrated Maritime Policy (IMP). The IMP covers maritime spatial planning (MSP), which aims to provide a sustainable allocation and development of different sea uses bringing in line economic, social and environmental concerns (as covered by the recent EU Directive on MSP), and the EU's Blue Growth agenda. The Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) and its ecosystem-based approach to management provide a platform and guidance for balancing the use of the seas with the need to keep them healthy. The EU Biodiversity Strategy requires achieving healthy commercial fish stocks and avoiding significant adverse impacts on other stocks, species and ecosystems.

It is also recognised that EU coastal areas require attention in regard to adaptation to climate change in an effort to protect human welfare (EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change).

Key trends

The use of the seas and coasts has increased as traditional industries grow and as new industries emerge. These industries are essential to the European economy and society with an estimated gross value added (GVA) of at least EUR 460485 billion and employ at least 6.6–7 million people (see table on European maritime activities and potential environmental issues).[5]

A number of maritime activities are in the early stages of growth including offshore renewable energy production (output increased by 21.7% (MW) between 2003–2008), installation of cables and pipelines, mineral mining and extraction of genetic resources.[5] Other more consolidated maritime activities are also experiencing growth. Maritime transport of freight is expected to grow between 3% and 4% for goods handled per annum. Industries such as shipbuilding and port operations are expected to grow in the next decade. Coastal tourism and recreation are important motors of the European blue economy, with significant added value and employment.[6]

Other maritime activities are experiencing a stable situation or decline, but remain important for the value and jobs they provide. Total catches in European fisheries have been decreasing from 6.9 million tonnes in 2001 to 3.5 million tonnes in 2011.[7][8] Important progress is seen in the number of fish stock fished at more sustainable levels in the North-East Atlantic and the Baltic Sea though unsustainable fishing practices like bottom-trawling remains.

Aquaculture production is levelling off in Europe. Oil and gas extraction is declining in the North Sea and it decreased by 4.8% GVA in the period 2003–2008 in Europe as a whole.[5] The sector remains a vital part of the economy, as new fields are discovered in the Barents Sea and Mediterranean Sea.

The main direct human pressures affecting European seas can be attributed to several of these activities and include: selective extraction of species (i.e. fisheries), seafloor damage, pollution by nutrient enrichment and contaminants, and the spreading of non-indigenous species.

Coastal eutrophication can result from excess nutrients from agriculture, forestry and municipal waste water discharge. A reduction in nutrient levels are being seen in the North-East Atlantic Ocean and the Baltic Sea.[9][10]

Contaminants are widespread in the marine environment, originating from untreated waste water, port activities and other areas. A downward trend is seen in the North-East Atlantic for lead and lindane, among others. An upward trend is seen in the Mediterranean Sea for mercury and lead.[11] The introduction of non-indigenous species is increasing in European seas through shipping, the Suez Canal and to a much lesser degree aquaculture.

Increasing amounts of marine litter  mostly coming from land-based sources — are ending up in the seas.[12] Underwater noise that results from activities such as the establishment of offshore construction or shipping is also of growing concern.

It is difficult to determine the whole range of specific interactions between these activities, their pressures and their cumulative impacts. However, evidence shows that they have induced large-scale changes on marine ecosystems, including areas with no oxygen, collapse of fish populations and loss of biodiversity.[13]

Climate change is the main indirect pressure on the marine environment leading to increased sea surface temperature and acidification. The combined effects of these physical impacts decrease the overall resilience of marine ecosystems and makes them even more vulnerable to other pressures, such as nutrient enrichment.[14]


As land-based sources of natural resources are being depleted and available space on land is occupied, our attention increasingly moves towards the sea. This situation has created an opening for what the European Commission has referred to as Blue Growth. This concept acknowledges Europe's strong maritime heritage and will look to provide guidance and solutions to harness potential of the seas for jobs and economic growth.

The European Commission launched its Blue Growth Strategy in 2012 as a contribution to the Europe 2020 Strategy for smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The Blue Growth Strategy will look towards collaboration between Member States and industry on the development of offshore renewable energy, coastal tourism, seabed mining and 'blue' biotechnology[1] along three components:

  1. specific integration of policy measures, with focus on improving access to information about the sea, maritime spatial planning and maritime surveillance;
  2. sea basin strategies to promote sustainable growth that take local factors into account;
  3. a targeted approach towards specific activities to utilise their full potential.

Blue Growth may have great potential, but only if the right balance is given to sustainability challenges. This is especially true given the current levels of marine environmental degradation. The Blue Growth Strategy is recognising the dual challenge of supporting sustainable use of the sea alongside achieving a healthy status for the sea. For example, the need to reduce greenhouse gases has already steered the development of offshore renewable energy installations. However, as many activities are expected to increase significantly over the next decade it is important to better understand and account for the interactive and cumulative effects from past, present and future human activities acting upon the state of marine ecosystems.

A number of policy and societal sustainability challenges exist: How to achieve human exploitation within the sea's ecological limits in order to ensure long-term ecosystem health and resilience? How to move from prioritising short-term economic gains to sustainable resource use?

While climate change mitigation requires regional action and global cooperation, some of the remaining, more direct, sectoral or point source pressures can be addressed directly by the EU through its policies and legislation. However, sustainability challenges will remain unless smart and innovative solutions are developed and implemented at a rate that coincides with increasing exploitation of the seas. Solutions that require, as a pre-requisite, the implementation of the MSFD ecosystem-based approach to the management of human activities.

Future solutions will need to better acknowledge the connections between societies and marine ecosystems as well as between human well-being and ecosystem services across regional and European scales. They will have to take into account the cumulative pressures within and across sectors, while respecting the regional differences of our seas. Lastly, they will have to better recognise the multiple EU policy objectives influencing the use of and the health of the sea.

A key challenge in the coming decade will be to steer policy expectations for Blue Growth towards the EU policy visions of establishing a circular green economy and living well within the ecological limits of the sea. Ecological limits should be respected if the loss of biodiversity is to be halted and preserve marine ecosystems and the potential services we could derive from them in the future.

References and footnotes

[1] EC (2012), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions ‘Blue Growth opportunities for marine and maritime sustainable growth’ (COM(2012) 494 final of 13 September 2012), accessed 17 January 2014.

[2] Crilly, R. and Esteban, A. (2012), Jobs lost at sea: Overfishing and the jobs that never were, New Economics Foundation, London.

[3] Costanza, R., de Groot, R., Sutton, P., van der Ploeg, S., Anderson, S. J., Kubiszewski, I., Farber, S. and Turner, R. K. (2014), Changes in the global value of ecosystem services,Global Environmental Change,(26) 152–158.

[4] Rogers, A. D., Sumaila, U. R., Hussein, S. and Baulcomb, C. (2014), The High Seas and Us: Understanding the Value of High-Seas Ecosystems, Global Ocean Commission, Oxford.

[5] Ecorys, Deltares and Oceanic Development (2012), Blue Growth Scenarios and drivers for Sustainable Growth from the Oceans, Seas and Coasts, Rotterdam/Brussels, accessed 30 May 2013.

[6] EC (2014), Questions and Answers on the European strategy for coastal and maritime tourism, European Commission, Brussels, accessed 10 March 2014.

[7] EC (2013), Summary of the 2013 annual economic report on the EU fishing fleet (STECF-13-18), Publications Office, Luxembourg.

[8] Eurostat (2012), Fishery statistics — Statistics Explained, accessed 29 August 2013.

[9] OSPAR (2010), 2010 Quality Status Report,The Convention for the Protection of the marine Environment of the North-East AtlanticOSPAR, London.

[10] HELCOM (2010), Ecosystem health of the Baltic Sea 2003–2007: HELCOM Initial Holistic Assessment, Helsinki.

[11] EEA (2011), Hazardous substances in Europe’s fresh and marine waters — An overview, EEA Technical report No 8/2011, European Environment Agency.

[12] UNEP (2009), Marine Litter: A Global Challenge, United Nations Environment Programme, Nairobi.

[13] Jackson, J. B. C., Kirby, M. X., Berger, W. H., Bjorndal, K. A., Botsford, L. W., Bourque, B. J., Bradbury, R. H., Cooke, R., Erlandson, J., Estes, J. A., Hughes, T. P., Kidwell, S., Lange, C. B., Lenihan, H. S., Pandolfi, J. M., Peterson, C. H., Steneck, R. S., Tegner, M. J. and Warner, R. R. (2001), 'Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems', Science, 293(5530) 629–637.

[14] EEA (2012), Climate change, impacts and vulnerability in Europe 2012, EEA Report No 12/2012, European Environment Agency.


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