Although not always immediately apparent, our wellbeing as humans is affected by the environmental state of our seas, because many aspects of our lives benefit from the goods and services provided by well-functioning marine and coastal ecosystems. These ecosystem services offer a multitude of opportunities to provide an income for people for instance through production of fish and shellfish for human consumption or an environment suitable for tourism and recreation.
Environmental impacts in European seas, which affect the marine ecosystem in many different ways, are driven by a large number of human activities including agriculture; fisheries and aquaculture; industry; shipping; urbanisation; tourism; space demand for ports and off‑shore structures; and oil, gas and other mineral extraction. As a result, the ecosystem services provided by the marine environment deteriorate, that is the ecological functions that are a result of the interactions between organisms in the sea and their physical, and chemical environment deteriorate.
This can lead to the disruption of habitat or marine food web functioning that can have amplified and cascading effects within the ecosystem, and may ultimately cause an ecosystem species and destructive species invasions — which when combined increase ecosystem vulnerability to changes. Many impacts are expected to be exacerbated by increased sea temperatures, rising sea levels, and ocean acidification that are the consequences of global warming and increased CO2 concentration of the atmosphere.
The impacts lead to a decline of the goods — such as fish — and services including recreational quality provided by the coast and seas. While many of the activities that harm the environment are a consequence of immediate human needs, they impact species and habitats that have evolved over thousands if not millions of years, sometimes irreversibly.
The aftermath of the financial crisis calls for future transformations towards more eco-efficient economies. This will increase the use of resources at sea for new industries linked for example to renewable energy or sustainable tourism, thus promoting the development of more environmentally friendly technologies, products and services. This is expected to reduce some of the environmental pressures known today, provided that an ecosystem-based approach is in place.
As a consequence of these concerns, it has long been recognised by the global community that a strategy for integrated management of activities on land, at sea and of living resources to promote conservation and sustainable use was needed (Earth Summit, 1992). This management strategy is also often referred to as the ecosystem-based approach to management and is now widely implemented in European policies governing the coastal and marine environment — in line with commitments under the 6th Environment Action Programme (6EAP): the Integrated Maritime Policy, and its environmental pillar the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD) (EC, 2008c), the Water Framework Directive (WFD) (EC, 2000), the Habitats and Birds Directives (EC, 1979; 1992), and possibly in the upcoming 2012 reform of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).