European Environment Agency (EEA)

Balancing the future of Europe`s coasts — knowledge base for integrated management


Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

This report has three elements. Firstly, it gives a snapshot of the current state of Europe's coastal regions. Secondly, it assesses the policies used to manage coastal regions, and discusses the proposal for a new European directive to improve the management of coastal regions. Thirdly, it highlights the need for better information and better monitoring tools to help inform this management process. The three sections below deal with each of these elements in more detail.

The state of Europe's coastal regions

Coastal regions are tremendously important for Europe's economy. Approximately 40 % of the EU's population lives within 50 km of the sea. Almost 40 % of the EU's GDP is generated in these maritime regions, and a staggering 75 % of the volume of the EU's foreign trade is conducted by sea.

But this important role played by our coasts has come at a cost to the environment. Activities such as shipping, resource extraction, renewable energy and fishing are all putting pressure on marine and coastal areas. These pressures have been felt across most of Europe's coastal regions. This has resulted in habitat loss, pollution and accelerated coastal erosion. Climate change is likely to make these regions — and the societies that live in them — more vulnerable.

Recent data highlight the continued poor quality of many European coastal waters, with the Baltic Sea the worst, followed by the North Sea and the Black Sea. The conservation status of Europe's coastal species and habitats is also generally bad or unknown. Only 13 % of the assessments of coastal species made under the Habitats Directive are favourable. 73 % of the coastal habitat assessments show bad or inadequate conservation status.

The policy context for coastal management in Europe

This deterioration threatens the continued health of our coastal areas. If these regions are to continue to power our economies, shelter a rich biodiversity, and remain home to millions of Europeans, we must manage them more carefully. This management must also be conducted in an integrated fashion, balancing the competing interests of human development with the need to ensure healthy and resilient coastal ecosystems.

Public policy has already begun to implement this principle of integrated management of coastal zones. In 2002, the European Union adopted a Recommendation on Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM), setting out basic principles. These principles are still valid and include: stakeholder involvement; sensitivity of policy to local needs; the adoption of a long‑term perspective; and the creation of links between all levels of governance, from local to European.

Although ICZM principles are increasingly being adopted in the management of coastal areas, progress has not been uniform. The European Commission estimated in 2012 that implementation of ICZM was only about 50 % across the EU as a whole. It identified two shortcomings that are especially important. The first is a lack of clear administrative responsibility for the implementation of ICZM, and the second is an absence of commonly agreed objectives and timeframes in which these objectives should be achieved.

In order to overcome these shortcomings, the European Commission in 2013 issued a proposal for a new directive (at the time the present report was printed, the proposed directive was being discussed by the EU institutions, and no indications were available to ascertain whether or not the proposal will be voted upon in its current form, amended, or withdrawn; hence the present report will be updated in due time to reflect any developments in this regard). This directive would establish a framework for integrated coastal management and for 'maritime spatial planning' (public policy that deals exclusively with managing maritime space but not land space). The Commission hopes that this directive will integrate in a coherent whole all of the EU policies that touch on maritime and coastal issues (such as the Habitats Directive, the Water Framework Directive, Marine Strategy Framework Directive etc.). It also hopes this directive will provide guidance for how to better manage the competing claims of economic sectors on space and resources in coastal and marine areas.

The most important feature of this proposed new directive is the requirement for countries and groups of countries to prepare maritime spatial plans and integrated coastal management strategies. Five years after the adoption of the directive, the Commission will compile a follow‑up report based on progress reports submitted by the Member States.

Improving the knowledge base for successful coastal management

These plans, strategies, and reports must be based on accurate information if they are to help inform the policy process. There is therefore a need to improve the quality of the data used to measure the health of our coastal environment.

One of the most important improvements is the creation of geospatial data. Most of the information currently compiled by Member States about their coastal regions is socio‑economic in nature and does not contain location data that would help pinpoint precisely where certain environmental changes are happening. Integrating various data sets from different sources is even more challenging. This lack of quality‑assured spatial data hinders effective management. As computer‑mapping technology improves, it can be used to monitor these changes in the way space is used by different activities (shipping, fishing, construction etc.).

EU Member States should also make more effort to harmonise their data and make it consistent with the data reported by other countries, so that it can be shared. Shared in this way, and enhanced by coordinated indicator sets, coastal data can give a larger and more refined picture of the wider ecosystem area, allowing for more effective management.

With better quality input data, scientists and policy makers can make use of new assessment methods that give a comprehensive picture of coastal areas, making it easier to implement an ecosystem‑based management approach. Three of these new assessment methods are particularly promising:

  • Spatial analysis of cumulative impacts. Improved geospatial data can be used to analyse the effects of a combination of different impacts (e.g. fishing, wind turbines or sediment extraction) on coastal and marine ecosystems. Maps produced with this data can integrate information that has traditionally been studied separately, making them a valuable decision support tool for ecosystem‑based spatial planning of coastal and marine areas.
  • Ecosystem capital accounts. In the same way that financial accounts measure changes in the flows of money, ecosystem capital accounts aim at measuring the changes of our natural capital (everything from fish stocks to the level of biodiversity degradation). The EEA is currently working on such a system of accounts, using datasets specially chosen for coastal/marine systems.
  • Coastal vulnerability assessments. These are created by identifying particular elements at the coastline that are most at risk from either climate change or other human‑related changes. For example, a freshwater lagoon could be vulnerable to saltwater intrusion, or an area of residential settlement could be vulnerable to coastal erosion or flooding.

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