European Environment Agency (EEA)

State of Europe`s seas


Courtesy of Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Europe's seas are home to a wide variety of marine organisms and ecosystems, and are also an important source of food, raw materials, and energy for people. There is a range of EU policy goals related to managing the use of our seas' natural capital so we can keep on reaping its benefits. For example, there are EU policies related to managing fisheries and offshore energy production, and to protect marine biodiversity. In order to achieve the integration of these different policies, European policymakers agreed on the 2008 EU Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD). The MSFD has three main goals for the state of Europe's seas, and this report seeks to examine whether these goals are being met. Our conclusion is that we are failing to meet two out of these three goals.

This is the first EEA report to undertake an assessment of Europe's seas at the EU-wide scale. The report begins with Part I, which discusses 'ecosystem-based management', a concept promoted by the MSFD. Ecosystem-based management means managing human activities in a way that is compatible with the full functioning of marine ecosystems. In Part II, the report examines whether the EU is meeting the three goals it set under the MSFD. These goals are for Europe's seas to be (1) 'healthy', (2) 'clean', and (3) 'productive'. We conclude this part indicating that although Europe's seas can be considered 'productive', they cannot be considered 'healthy' nor 'clean'. In Part III, the report looks into the future and considers whether the use of Europe's seas natural capital is sustainable. It concludes that a closer coupling between our ambitions for 'Blue Growth' and 'productive' seas on one hand and our ambitions for 'healthy' and 'clean' seas on the other is needed. Thus, our current way of using Europe's seas natural capital does not appear to be sustainable despite some recent positive results from the implementation of certain policy instruments. Unsustainability threatens the productivity of our seas and, ultimately, our wellbeing. In order to address this situation we need to make fundamental changes in our lifestyles leading to living in a way that respects the ecological boundaries of the sea. These changes are key to ensure that we meet the EU's 2050 vision to 'live well, within the planet's ecological limits'.

Part I — Towards ecosystem-based management in Europe's seas

Part I of the report describes the concept of 'ecosystem-based management' of human activities in the marine environment. This concept is enshrined in EU marine and maritime policies. In Chapter 1, we give an operational definition of ecosystem‑based management. We also provide a description of some of the EU policies governing the management of our activities at sea, with a special focus on the MSFD. MSFD implementation by EU Member States is an important step in applying ecosystem-based management and having 'productive' seas that are also 'healthy' and 'clean', but further efforts are needed to make ecosystem-based management a reality.

These further efforts will require increased integration between EU marine and maritime policies and economics. In Chapter 2, we discuss some of the concepts that can assist decision-makers to make this integration happen. For example, we explain how economic concepts such as capital and services apply to marine ecosystems. We further argue that the services provided by the 'biotic' constituent of the sea's natural capital (i.e. marine ecosystem capital) are critical for meeting people's basic needs, and for supporting our well-being and livelihoods.

Part II — Are our seas healthy, clean, and productive?

Part II of the report provides the assessment of the state of Europe's seas. This assessment is based on data and information from numerous published and/ or officially reported sources. It focuses on marine species and habitats; the predominant pressures on these species and habitats; and the maritime activities responsible for these pressures. It also provides examples of the effects of different EU policy responses to key issues affecting the state of Europe's seas.

Chapter 3 examines the state of marine species and habitats, which are known by the collective term of 'ecological features'. This chapter looks at ecological features such as seabed and water column habitats, and key biotic groups: invertebrates, fish, turtles, seabirds and water birds, and mammals. It also examines overall ecosystem functioning, such as food web dynamics. The chapter tentatively concludes that our seas cannot be currently considered 'healthy'. It also concludes that significant efforts are needed to improve our knowledge base on the biodiversity of Europe's seas. This can be done by enhancing coordination between Member States, and by gathering and sharing further information from the regional seas of Europe.

In Chapter 4, we examine the pressures that affect Europe's seas. These pressures include physical damage to the seafloor; extraction of fish and shellfish; introduction of non-indigenous species; input of nutrients leading to eutrophication; marine litter; etc. EU policy is having an effect in reducing the more 'traditional' of these pressures, such as those arising from fishing or from nutrient loading. However, there is also an array of non-traditional, 'emerging' pressures, which must now be adequately managed. A further difficulty that must be addressed is the combined, cumulative effect of all these pressures on marine ecosystems. This is an increasingly complex problem and a growing concern, because these cumulative effects lead to altered ecosystem functioning and reduced ecosystem resilience. We conclude that, at present, Europe's seas cannot be considered 'clean'.

In Chapter 5, we examine the human activities causing the pressures described in Chapter 4. A significant part of the pressure on marine ecosystems arises from activities at sea. These maritime activities are at the heart of the EU's 'Blue Growth' strategy and include the extraction and production of living resources; transport; energy production; tourism, etc. Maritime activities play an important role in the European economy in terms of gross value added and employment, and most of these activities are expected to increase in the future. We therefore conclude that our seas are currently very 'productive'. However, we warn that past, present and future pressures from human activities are reaching levels that threaten this productivity because of the way they affect the marine ecosystem capital of Europe's seas.

Chapter 6 discusses how the ecosystem-based approach could help decision-makers to manage the activities causing marine pressure in an integrated and thus more effective way. Thematic policy instruments dealing with single 'traditional' issues, such as eutrophication, biodiversity protection, and overfishing are leading to improvements in the state of Europe's seas. However, EU marine and maritime policies have not yet achieved their full potential. In order to address the increasing complexity of the problems faced by our seas, governments must implement these policies in an integrated way. The chapter concludes that applying the ecosystem-based approach would be the way to achieve the desired policy integration. This would require changes to traditional policy and management procedures.

The quality of the EEA's assessments across this report relies on the quality of Member State reporting on their implementation of EU marine policy. While there are some examples of high-quality reporting, there are also substantial gaps in this reporting. We therefore compiled the evidence presented in this report from numerous sources, including policy-linked reported information; established EU data flows; scientific literature; empirical examples; and case studies. Chapters 3, 4, 5 and 6 all argue for more and better‑quality information on our seas in order to support improved effectiveness of EU marine policy.

Part III — Our seas, our future

Part III builds on the previous chapters and reflects upon the serious challenges that still face Europe's seas despite the partial improvements that have reduced certain pressures. It argues that we need to identify and respect the ecological boundaries of Europe's seas if we want to maintain their potential to deliver ecosystems services now and in the future.

In Chapter 7, we assess whether our use of the natural capital of Europe's seas is sustainable or leads to the degradation and loss of marine ecosystems and their services. Humans have relied upon the sea to support their daily lives for centuries. How long can we keep on doing so? If we focus solely on short-term economic gains, we put ecosystems — and our own basic needs, well-being, and livelihoods — at risk. Unfortunately, it appears that the way we use Europe's seas natural capital is not sustainable.

In Chapter 8, we examine how our policy ambitions for economic growth, in particular from maritime activities, can be aligned with our policy targets of securing 'healthy', 'clean' and 'productive' seas. This alignment will require a fundamental shift in the 'socio-technical' systems that fulfil our societal needs. Achieving such a shift relies on a collaborative response from decision‑makers; research institutions; businesses; advocate groups; citizens; and providers of information and knowledge. Thus, we need to build a 'European ocean constituency', committed to embracing the stewardship of our seas. The chapter includes an indicative summary assessment of the status and outlook for our seas on the basis on all information put forward in this report (see Table ES.1). Our assessment shows that Europe's seas cannot be considered 'healthy' nor 'clean' today and are unlikely to become so in the future given the current trends.

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