The Continuous Degradation of Europe`s Coasts Threatens European Living Standards

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Courtesy of European Environment Agency (EEA)

Living by the sea is very attractive. People picture coasts as an immutable asset, yet damaging and irreversible changes to coastal ecosystems continue unabated. Available trends show that changes in land use in coastal areas outstrip those seen elsewhere; for instance, the growth of artificial surfaces along Europe's coasts is increasing at a rate one third faster than in inland areas. These changes are widespread and driven by a range of factors — demographic changes, economic restructuring, increased living standards and leisure time and global trade patterns. In many coastal regions these factors have caused rapid changes that have drastically altered the potential long-term viability of coastal ecosystems and the services they provide. It is increasingly likely that existing impacts on coastal ecosystems will be exacerbated from now on by climate change.

Coastal ecosystems provide a wide range of services to society. These include provisioning services, such as supply of food, fuel wood, energy resources and natural products, and cultural (amenity) services, such as tourism and ecreation. In addition, coastal ecosystems offer important regulating and supporting services, e.g. shoreline stabilisation and buffering from natural hazards or detoxification of polluted waters. As coasts have increasingly assumed a 'gateway' function in global trade and logistics, they have become more and more developed and ecosystem services have been degraded as a result.

These trends are important because such services represent a significant proportion of the total economic value of coastal zones. For example, Europe's biological marine resources largely depend on the quality of coastal zones. If there are disruptions in these natural functions, the processes of degradation will progressively accelerate and make any possible response from society difficult. These natural functions cannot be replaced by technology.

Despite some successes most coastal regions are among the least economically developed areas of the EU. In 1996, 19 out of the then twenty-five less favoured areas of the EU-15 were coastal regions and this continues to be an important issue today in the enlarged EU-25. Small islands are especially affected by social and economic problems (e.g.migration and lack of economic infrastructure).

So far, development on the coasts has been based on economic restructuring. This has been achieved mainly through tourism and the associated boom in construction, especially in the Mediterranean and Atlantic regions. In other regions, priority has been given to the economic restructuring of the fishing industry, due to the dramatic decline in fish stocks. Also, increases in the number of harbours and the amount of maritime transport have led to the emergence of coasts as logistical platforms.

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