Marine and coastal environment — SOER 2010 thematic assessment

Publication Created 26 Oct 2010 Published 29 Nov 2010
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European marine regions include the north-east Atlantic and Arctic oceans, and the Mediterranean, Black and Baltic seas. Human activities — such as fishing, aquaculture and agriculture — and climate change cause large and severe impacts on Europe's coastal and marine ecosystems. The EU objective of halting biodiversity loss by 2010 has not been met in either the coastal or the marine environment. Recognising the need for an integrated ecosystem-based approach to reduce pressures, the EU Integrated Maritime Policy allows for the development of sea-related activities in a sustainable manner. Its environmental pillar, the Marine Strategy Framework Directive, aims to deliver 'good environmental status' of the marine environment by 2020, and the Common Fisheries Policy will be reformed in 2012 with the aim of achieving sustainable fisheries. Complementary policy efforts include the EU Water Framework Directive and other freshwater legislation, and the Habitats and Birds Directives.



Drivers and impacts

The impacts on Europe's seas and coasts are driven by human activities such as fishing and aquaculture,land-based activities such as fertiliser and pesticide use in agriculture, chemical pollution from industries and shipping, and the exploitation of oil, gas and other resources. Further negative factors include the introduction of alien species, marine litter, noise, urbanisation and tourism, and the destruction of habitats for ports and off‑shore structures. Many of these impacts are exacerbated by climate change.

As a result, the ecosystem services provided by Europe's seas and coasts are deteriorating, including a decline in goods such as fish and recreational quality. Examples of impacts include the risk of ecosystem collapse (which has occurred in the Black and Baltic seas), toxic algae blooms, anoxic water (i.e. oxygen depleted), destruction of habitats, invasions of new species and chemical pollution of seafood.

Fishing pressures in most of Europe's seas exceed sustainable levels and safe biological limits (SBL), and since 1985, there has been a general decline in fish catches. The capacity of European fishing fleets has also not been sufficiently reduced to be in balance with available fish resources. As a result, 30 % of Europe's commercial fish stocks are now fished beyond SBL, and in 2010, 70 % of commercial stocks were fished above maximum sustainable yield. Other pressures include: by-catch; the destruction of sea-floor habitats; and illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.

European aquaculture production has increased over the past 15 years, driven by the combined effects of decreased wild catches and increased demand for fish. Impacts include discharges of nutrients, antibiotics and fungicides, the potential for the 'genetic pollution' of wild species, and an increase in the fishing mortality of wild stocks used for feed.

Human activities on land can result in marine pollution from fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture,sewage and industrial waste. Excess nutrients can create 'eutrophication' which can lead to the depletion of oxygen and loss of life in bottom waters. In spite of measures to reduce nutrient concentrations in European seas, 85 % of measurement stations show no change in nitrogen concentrations and 80 % show no change in phosphorous concentrations. Oxygen depletion is particularly serious in the Baltic and Black seas.

Toxic chemicals, while on a downward trend, are found in high concentrations in fish and shellfish in most of Europe. Pollution also includes illegal oil discharges and accidental oil spills from ships, although the phase-out of single-hull oil tankers has facilitated a significant decrease in accidental oil spills. Invasive species are introduced,for example, through ship ballast water discharge or aquaculture, sometimes causing serious ecosystem damage. Marine litter — commonly plastics — and noise are also growing concerns.

Climate change has increased ecosystem vulnerability. Sea surface temperature changes in Europe's regional seas have been up to six times greater than in the global oceans in the past 25 years. Consequences include reduced Arctic sea ice coverage, sea-level rise, and increasing ocean acidification due to rising atmospheric CO2 levels. Temperature increases are changing the composition of plankton and some fish species, thus changing fishing opportunities in European seas. In the future, less sea ice will ease access to the Arctic's resources and could result in both new economic opportunities and additional environmental pressures.


European policies governing the coastal and marine environment now widely include the ecosystem-based approach — a strategy for the integrated management of activities on land, at sea and of living resources that promotes conservation and sustainable use, and which addresses the combined effects of multiple pressures.

The European Union's (EU) Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) aims at 'good environmental status' of EU marine waters by 2020, while allowing for the sustainable use of marine goods and services. The MSFD is seen as the environmental pillar of the EU Integrated Maritime Policy which aims to provide a policy framework aligning the sustainable development of activities in seas with conservation objectives — including the implementation of conservation objectives in the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) as called for in a recent European Commission Green Paper for CFP reform.

EU water legislation, including the Water Framework Directive (WFD), Urban Waste Water Treatment Directive and Nitrates Directive, will help to improve the quality of freshwater (e.g. by reducing nutrient and chemical pollution) before it enters coastal waters.

Through the Natura 2000 network of protected sites (under the EU Habitats and Birds Directives), designated marine sites are primarily found close to the coasts. Only 8 % and 11 % of coastal habitats and species, respectively, and 10 % and 2 % of marine habitats and species, respectively, are in favourable conservation status. The remaining majority of habitats and species either have unfavorable conservation status or are un-assessed. Species here include some of the most threatened plants, reptiles, mammals and fish in Europe's seas.

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