Ocean governance

Page Last modified 05 May 2022
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International ocean governance is about managing and using the world’s oceans and their resources in ways that keep them healthy, productive, safe, secure and resilient.

Today, 60 % of the oceans are outside the borders of national jurisdiction. This implies a shared international responsibility. Under the overarching UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, a plethora of jurisdictional rights, institutions and specific frameworks have been set up to organise the way humans use these waters.

EU action on international ocean governance aims to build on this framework and work with others to improve the health of this resource, which is open to all States.

EEA Marine Roadmap

The EEA operates in a multi-level and multi-actor governance setting at global, EU, regional and national levels. It specifically supports the European Commission to assist Member States. This setting includes not only the relevant competent authorities at country or regional level but also research institutes, businesses and NGOs.

The EEA has adopted an international framework for international engagement. It outlines the priority areas and guiding principles for its engagement with international environmental issues. In the marine domain this involves supporting EU engagement in ocean governance and regional seas coordination.

Furthermore, the EEA supports the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 goals. In particular, it supports the European contribution towards targets and indicators on SDG 14:

to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Similarly, the EEA contributes to the European Neighbourhood Policy environment objectives by supporting the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM)'s flagship 'depollution of the Mediterranean' (the Horizon 2020 Initiative for a Cleaner Mediterranean by the year 2020). This involves building capacities in the Southern Neighbourhood countries to implement the Shared Environmental Information System (SEIS) principles and preparation of state of the environment reports for the H2020 Mediterranean report.

The EEA also cooperates with the governance mechanisms supporting regional sea protection, in particular the Regional Sea Conventions:

  • OSPAR for the North-east Atlantic,
  • HELCOM for the Baltic Sea,
  • the Barcelona Convention for the Mediterranean Sea, e.g. the UN Environment Programme Mediterranean Action Plan (UNEP/MAP),
  • the Black Sea Convention (BSC).

It participates in the Arctic Council's Working Group on Protecting the Arctic Marine Environment (PAME). Similarly, the EEA has a close partnership with the International Council for the Exploration of the Seas (ICES).

Within its international engagement, the EEA plays a specific role in the Mediterranean region, co-chairing the Review and Monitoring Group of the H2020 Initiative and the UNEP/MAP secretariat. It also ensures joint efforts to streamline the delivery and dissemination of information in support of implementing relevant policies and influencing decision-making.

The above-mentioned overarching and thematic policy frameworks set the context for the marine work at the EEA and provide the strategic basis for its data collection, assessments and information-sharing activities.

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.

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 and 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:

The four European Regional Sea Conventions (RSCs) and their operating mechanisms have an important role to play in ensuring regionally coherent and consistent marine assessments. EU Member States and EEA member countries collaborate on producing regional marine assessments in this setting. The RSCs are not part of the EU system, although the European Commission is a contracting party to three of them (HELCOM, OSPAR and UNEP/MAP). In HELCOM and OSPAR, the majority of contracting parties are also members of the EU (and EEA), whereas this is not the case for BARCON and the Bucharest Convention.

The EEA engages with the RSCs and their activities on the basis of existing Memoranda of Understanding. Particular emphasis on the Mediterranean region is in line with the EEA's support of and engagement with neighbourhood cooperation. This is strengthened by a renewed joint EEA-UNEP/MAP work plan for the period 2016-2022 ensuring continuity and increasing the cooperation further.

Collaboration is focused on data and indicator development, and methodological exchanges in support of WISE-Marine and European marine assessments, i.e. the evaluation report on the Directive's implementation due in 2019 (MSFD Article 20.3) led by the Directorate-General for the Environment (DG ENV). 

International Council for the Exploration of the Sea

ICES is an intergovernmental organisation whose main objective is to develop scientific knowledge on the marine environment and its living resources. It uses this knowledge to provide unbiased, non-political advice to competent authorities. ICES science and advice considers both how human activities, in particular fisheries, affect marine ecosystems and how ecosystems affect human activities. ICES aims to ensure that the best available science is accessible for decision-makers to make informed choices on the sustainable use of the marine environment and its ecosystems.

In the context of MSFD implementation, ICES provides scientific advice in relation to achieving good environmental status of fish stocks, food webs and sea floor integrity. ICES also provides other advice in regard to fisheries — in particular the fish stock assessments used for setting quotas in the context of the common fisheries policy. ICES collaborates with the EEA both through ETC/ICM (acting as the marine data centre) and also in its broader capacity as a comprehensive science network and advisory body.


The European Marine Observation and Data Network  (EMODnet) is a network of organisations supported by the EU's Integrated Maritime Policy. These organisations work together to observe the sea, process the data in accordance with international standards and make that information freely available as interoperable data layers and data products.

EMODnet provides access to European marine data across seven discipline-based themes: bathymetry, geology, seabed habitats, chemistry, biology, physics and human activities.

EMODnet has an advanced network of the data-producing institutions in the region in order to collect necessary scientific data. The history of this network goes back to the 1990s. The EEA and EMODnet cooperate on collecting and publishing marine data.

Sustainable Development Goals

The UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development identified conservation and sustainable use of oceans as one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 14) and as part of a highly inter-connected agenda. For the first time, the conservation and sustainable use of the oceans are addressed with the world's other most pressing sustainability challenges in an overarching global policy agenda, and reflected as such across several SDGs and targets.

Following the adoption of the UN Agenda 2030 and the SDGs in 2015, the European Commission published a Communication  on 22 November 2016, which covers both the domestic and the external dimensions of the 2030 Agenda's implementation. The Commission presented a mapping of existing European actions with the SDGs and stated that this clearly indicated that all 17 SDGs were addressed through European action. However, it added that strengthened implementation and further focused action in all areas would be required to implement the full Agenda by 2030.

The Communication also stated that from 2017 onwards the Commission would carry out more detailed regular monitoring of the SDGs in an EU context, developing a reference indicator framework for this purpose. On 31 May 2017, Eurostat published the final EU SDG indicator set consisting of 100 indicators identified through a broad consultation process. This set includes 14 indicators for which EEA is indicator/data provider. On 20 October 2017, Eurostat published the first EU SDG monitoring report based on this indicator set.

SDG 14 — Life Below Water — aims to conserve oceans by achieving healthy and productive seas and ensuring their sustainable use by implementing international law, as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This includes the safeguarding of marine and coastal ecosystems, conserving at least 10 % of coastal and marine areas as well as preventing and reducing marine pollution and the impacts of ocean acidification. The conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources also requires an end to overfishing and destructive and/or illegal fishing practices and the abolition of fisheries subsidies, which contribute to overcapacity and overfishing.

SDG 14 seeks to increase economic benefits to small-island developing states and least developed countries from the sustainable use of marine resources and to provide access for small-scale artisanal fishers to marine resources and markets. It also highlights the importance of increasing scientific knowledge, research capacity and marine technology for improving ocean health.

Five indicators are set for assessing progress in SDG 14:

Marine conservation

Sufficiency of marine sites designated under the EU Habitats Directive

No evaluation possible

Sustainable fishery

Catches in major fishing areas

No evaluation possible

Assessed fish stocks exceeding fishing mortality at maximum sustainable yield (Fmsy)

Significant progress towards SD objectives

Ocean health

Mean ocean acidity

No evaluation possible

Bathing sites with excellent water quality

Significant progress towards SD objectives

The EEA provides expertise and data to fulfill European contributions to global and UN activities —through its data and indicators — and supports the monitoring of the achievement of the environmental SDGs in Europe.

In the first half of 2016, the EEA provided input to the development of the EU SDG indicator list developed by Eurostat. In mid-2017, the EEA provided substantial comments on Eurostat's first EU SDG monitoring report. The EEA's main objective in this work cluster is that EEA data/indicators useful for measuring progress towards the SDGs are well used at European level.

Last but not least, EEA data/indicators could of course also be used in the EEA's own assessments related to the SDGs, e.g. in the context of the SOER 2020. EEA assessments are contributing to assessing progress towards certain SDGs with an environmental dimension. First of all, this is done through the EEA's regular assessment reports. The mapping of recent EEA reports with SDGs has shown that EEA assessment reports include a lot of information that could be used for a gap analysis on how Europe is progressing towards the SDGs.


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage

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