Europe's seas and coasts

Page Last modified 04 Oct 2017
2 min read
The ecosystems of Europe's coastal areas and seas have been significantly altered by centuries of human exploitation. Recent evidence shows that human-induced change in marine ecosystems has greatly increased in the past 60 years. The seas have become busier places, driven by a combination of technological advances and society's increasing demand for food, energy and other resources.

Human activities are causing unprecedented environmental changes in coastal and marine ecosystems. Pressures from fishing, pollution from land and sea sources, dense coastal urban development and tourism, damage to the sea floor by oil platforms, energy transmission lines and mining activities, and the spread of non-indigenous species, especially by shipping, are major threats to sea habitats. All these impacts are likely to be made worse by the changing climate.

Human activities are often concentrated in coastal regions least able to assimilate them and where the adverse effects are most apparent. The main threats to European coastal areas are water pollution and eutrophication (or nutrient enrichment), loss of biological diversity, urban development, landscape deterioration and coastal erosion.

Interesting facts

  • The area of sea under the control (jurisdiction) of EU Member States is larger than the total land area of the EU. Including its outlying regions (territories and entities in the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean), the EU has the world's largest maritime territory.
  • The EU coastline is 68 000 km long — more than three times longer than that of the United States and almost twice that of Russia. If the EEA member countries Iceland, Norway and Turkey are included, the coastline reaches to 185 000 km long.
  • In the 24 EEA coastal countries, there are 560 000 km2 of coastal zones, corresponding to 13 % of the total land mass of these countries (based on Corine Land Cover data from 2000).
  • Almost half of the EU population lives less than 50 km from the sea; the majority is concentrated in urban areas along the coast. In 2011, 206 million people, or 41 % of the EU population, lived in Europe's coastal regions (data for 2011 from Eurostat).
  • The seaside is Europe's most popular holiday destination. Employing over 3.2 million people, this sector generates EUR 183 billion in gross value added and represents over one third of the maritime economy. As much as 51 % of bed capacity in hotels across Europe is concentrated in coastal regions (European Commission, Coastal and Maritime Tourism).
  • European seas include a wide range of marine and coastal ecosystems, ranging from the stable environment of the deep ocean to highly dynamic coastal waters. These ecosystems provide a home for up to 48 000 species (SoER 2015).
  • Economic assets within 500 metres of the sea have an estimated value of EUR 500 billion to 1000 billion.
  • EU public expenditure on protecting coastlines from the risk of erosion and flooding is expected to reach EUR 5.4 billion a year for the period 1990-2020.

Regional sea characteristics and management

Europe's seas include the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas and the North-East Atlantic Ocean. The North-East Atlantic includes the North, Barents, Icelandic, Norwegian, Irish and Celtic Seas and the Bay of Biscay and the Iberian Coast.

19305-Regional_Seas_Surrounding_Europe_MAP3_names.png
Source: EEA 2015


The Baltic Sea is semi-enclosed and has low salinity because of its restricted water exchange with the North-East Atlantic and high volume of river run-off. These conditions make the sea particularly vulnerable to nutrient pollution.

The Black Sea is semi-enclosed; it is the world's largest inland basin with only restricted water exchange with the Mediterranean. Its waters have very low oxygen concentrations at depths below 150 to 200 metres. The surface water salinity of the Black Sea is within an intermediate range. Most of the Black Sea is believed to host oil and gas reserves, and exploration of these reserves is under way.

The North-East Atlantic Ocean covers a range of seas and a large climate range. It is a highly productive area that hosts the most valuable fishing grounds in Europe and many unique habitats and ecosystems. It is also home to Europe's largest oil and gas reserves.

The Mediterranean Sea is semi-enclosed and has high salinity as a result of high evaporation rates and low river run-off. It has restricted water exchange with the Atlantic Ocean and Black Sea. It is the most biologically diverse sea in Europe.

The deep sea and sea floor forms an extensive and complex system that is linked to the rest of the planet by exchanges of matter, energy and biodiversity. The functioning of deep-sea ecosystems is crucial to global lifecycles upon which life on Earth, and human civilisation, depend. Deep sea is usually defined as sea of depths greater than 400 metres. It is found in both European and international waters of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

For decades there has been strong regional and international cooperation through organisations and conventions. The regional organisations for Europe's seas are:

Environmental challenges

Degradation of marine and coastal ecosystems can be seen in the Baltic, Black and Mediterranean Seas and the North-East Atlantic and, more particularly, Arctic Oceans. Effects on the environment are a consequence of meeting our immediate human needs. However, they impact species and habitats that have evolved over thousands, if not millions, of years — sometimes irreversibly.

These impacts are related to the high and increasing population densities along Europe's coasts, fishing, agricultural and industrial chemical pollution, tourism developments, shipping, renewable energy infrastructures and other maritime activities. Although Europe's seas are productive, they cannot be considered to be healthy, clean or undisturbed.

Key Challenges:

  • Despite greatly improved waste water treatment, diffuse nutrient pollution from agriculture remains a major problem in the coastal and marine environment. It causes algal blooms and can lead to widespread oxygen depletion.
  • Concentrations of some heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants in fish and other seafood exceed the limits set for foodstuffs at selected locations in all Europe's seas. Major accidental oil spills have decreased, but oil discharges from regular activities, such as transport and refineries, are still significant. These substances accumulate in the food chain.
  • Contaminants and marine litter are widespread, but our knowledge about their consequences for the ecosystem, and ultimately for human health, remains poorly assessed or understood.
  • Vulnerable areas of the deep sea are at particular risk from the expansion of human activities. Pressure on the sea floor is expected to increase from a wider range of activities, such as bottom trawling, sea bed mining and offshore energy.
  • Overfishing has been decreasing since 2007 in EU Atlantic and Baltic waters, but 41 % of assessed stocks remain fished above maximum sustainable yield. Overfishing is dominant in the Mediterranean and Black Seas.
  • Invasive species, mostly brought in through shipping and the Suez Canal in the Mediterranean Sea, are spread through shipping and aquaculture. They can have devastating consequences for ecosystems and society. The annual economic loss due to aquatic invasive species is estimated to exceed USD 100 billion globally. 
  • Baltic and Arctic waters are also affected by invasive aquatic species, primarily species introduced from ballast waters but also species migrating northwards because of climate change.
  • The protection of marine and coastal habitats and species by designating coastal and marine sites under Natura 2000 is improving, but progress has been slow and difficult. The patterns of biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation seen across all regional seas indicate that many species and habitats are in a poor state. Loss of biodiversity across habitats and species reduces ecosystem resilience and makes marine ecosystems more vulnerable to pressures
  • Tourism, responsible for urban development along the Mediterranean coast, is now becoming a driver of development and an increasing source of pollution on the Black Sea coast too.
  • The effects of climate change are now being seen in all Europe's seas. Climate change is causing sea surface temperatures and sea levels to rise. Marine and coastal species are shifting their geographical and seasonal distributions in response to these changes. The management of fisheries and natural habitats will increasingly have to adapt to these changes to ensure environmental sustainability. The pH of seas will continue to decrease in response to increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. As a result, coral reefs in Europe's overseas territories — known as centres of biodiversity — are threatened by both increasing temperatures and acidification.

Positive trends:

  • The EU and its Member States have responded to marine ecosystem change and broader marine environmental challenges with a wide range of policies and initiatives aiming to protect coastal and marine ecosystems: 

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

19305-Regional_Seas_Surrounding_Europe_MAP3.eps

Source: EEA 2015

European policies

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 separate policy areas. However, the adoption of the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) in 2008 introduced an integrated management 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 other policies. The Water Framework Directive (WFD) regulates the ecological status of coastal and transitional waters by controlling the pressures from, for example, nutrients and chemicals. The Habitats and Birds Directives set conservation objectives for some marine and coastal habitats and species. The EU Biodiversity Strategy aims to halt the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services in the EU and help stop global biodiversity loss by 2020. Finally, the Paris Agreement on Climate Change sets out to keep the increase in average global temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels — and ideally to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.

The MSFD is an example of how the EU promotes ecosystem-based management — a systemic approach that is now at the core of EU environmental policy. The MSFD is the environmental pillar of the EU's integrated maritime policy, and it addresses all aspects of the functioning of marine ecosystems. It also brings together EU policy objectives on the marine environment that will allow us to secure healthy, clean, undisturbed and productive seas for the long term.

Ecosystem-based assessment

Source: EEA, 2015

Today's environmental challenges are increasingly systemic in nature. They are deeply rooted in society's globalised systems of production and consumption. Addressing these challenges will require a fundamental shift in those systems. That shift can only happen through a re-evaluation of our values, our lifestyles and the way we interact with nature and its resources.

The EU has already embraced this challenge by choosing to transform its model for development into one that builds on a green economy. The green economy can now be the backbone of the development of the blue economy by reconciling ecosystem resilience, economic growth, human wellbeing and the increasing demand for resources.

Growth in the maritime, energy, agriculture and tourism sectors is expected to continue. An important future objective for the MSFD will be to ensure that this growth is environmentally sustainable. This will be achieved by management strategies supported by the Integrated Maritime Policy, which takes a coherent approach to maritime issues across different policy areas. The Integrated Maritime Policy focuses on issues that do fall under a multi-sector policy such as Blue Growth and covers cross-cutting policies and the application of planning principles in line with Integrated Coastal Zone Management and Maritime Spatial Planning.

Although the MSFD sets an environmental objective for the status of fish stocks, all aspects of fisheries are regulated by the Common Fisheries Policy.

Related links

  • The MSFD requires good environmental status to be achieved by 2020 for many aspects of the marine environment, including fish. It is expected to reduce pollution and its impact in the marine environment.
  • ICZM recommends developing strategies to achieve sustainable coastal development.
  • MSP is a tool that supports strategies for sustainable use of the sea by bringing together multiple users of the sea.
  • The WFD required good ecological status or good ecological potential to be achieved by 2015 in estuaries and coasts across the EU.
  • The Nitrates Directive aims to reduce nitrate pollution from agricultural land.
  • The UWWTD aims to reduce pollution from sewage treatment works and certain industries.
  • The EU Habitats and Birds Directives (see EU nature legislation) form the cornerstone of Europe's nature conservation policy. The Habitats Directive is built around two pillars: the Natura 2000 network of protected sites and the strict system of species protection.
  • The threat of climate change is being addressed globally by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) sets binding emission targets for those developed countries that have ratified it, such as the EU Member States.   
  • WISE Marine
  • EMODnet
  • Copernicus Programme
  • The State of Europe's seas 2015
  • SOER 2015


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See also

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European Environment Agency (EEA)
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